The first-place Nets’ next two games in Milwaukee may be regular-season clashes, but they will have postseason vibes.
Between a mini-series schedule, to testing against the best and even trying for the top seed, everything about Sunday and Tuesday’s nationally televised showdowns at Fiserv Forum just screams playoff preview.
“Yeah, I guess you could say that,” Kyrie Irving admitted. “It’s probably the only time we’ll have a chance to see a team twice, right? Yeah, so, [they] could be one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference alongside us, and that’s a competitor’s dream. So, we look forward to it. We know that they’ve been playing well. So, we’re just looking forward to going in there.”
The Nets know they could see Milwaukee in the playoffs, and these next two games may well determine if that’s a second-round matchup or further down the line if both reach the Eastern Conference finals.
Brooklyn (43-21) is a half-game ahead of Philadelphia and 3 ½ clear of the third-place Bucks (39-24) coming into Sunday afternoon’s matinee (3:30 p.m., ABC).
The Nets turn around and play in Milwaukee again Tuesday (7:30 p.m., TNT), the first two dates on a brutal five-game trip that the advanced projections say will drop them behind the 76ers. If so, they’d potentially have to deal with a second-round matchup against Milwaukee and two-time NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.
That makes these two games not only a great measuring stick but added incentive to get the top seed and make the 76ers and Bucks deal with each other.
“It’s a great opportunity for us to play a terrific team, a team that could very well be there at the end in the East, and to measure ourselves and see how far we’ve come,” coach Steve Nash said. “We’re getting down to the nitty-gritty.
“So, to have these types of games and challenges — and we’ve got a few of them left for sure — it’s great for us, great for our development, great for our gauging of where we’re at and what we need to improve on. They’ll cause all sorts of problems, and hopefully we can do the same and they’ll be great matchups.”
There’s injury intrigue with the matchups. Kevin Durant (left hamstring) missed Friday’s loss to the Trail Blazers, but will play at Milwaukee. James Harden is still out with his own hamstring strain.
Meanwhile, Antetokounmpo missed Friday’s game after rolling his already sprained right ankle in the opening minute the night before in a loss to Houston.
The incomplete rosters make scouting as challenging as it is necessary.
“At this point it’s not so much front of the mind for my position,” Nash said. “But we do have a scouting department and a , so all the teams are out here collecting info and video and scouting reports.
“So that is part of the NBA for sure. How well you do it and how much you prioritize it probably depends on each department and each club. But that is something that certainly is a service and a skill that our departments will be on top of to make sure we’re overprepared come that time.”
The combination of Brooklyn having the 11th-toughest schedule and 76ers enjoying the league’s easiest run-in puts the Nets’ No. 1 seed hopes in jeopardy. Their odds have dipped to just 21.6 percent, according to Basketball Reference.
“I’m going to be honest: We haven’t talked about it. Speaking individually, I haven’t focused much on it,” Jeff Green said. “We’ve got — how many games have we got left? Eight. When these eight games are over you can ask me again.”
Or maybe when these two are over. They will decide how realistic the No. 1 seed is, and how much the Nets invest in chasing it.
Either way, Irving says they will be proud of the work.
“We’re just having fun, man. We’re enjoying the journey. Wherever we land, I think we’ll be proud,” Irving said. “The circumstances of the season, to still be the No. 1 seed or still fluctuating between one and two, it’s a blessing.”