Kevin Durant knew something was wrong when the Brooklyn Nets were trying to run a play and James Harden wasn’t in the right spot.
Moments later, Harden wasn’t even in the game, forced to leave with a right hamstring injury less than a minute into the Eastern Conference semifinals.
“That was tough,” Nets coach Steve Nash said.
Durant and Kyrie Irving made sure it wasn’t a knockout blow.
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Durant scored 29 points, Irving had 25 and the two superstars carried Brooklyn to a 115-107 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday night in Game 1.
Harden’s injury is the same one that forced him to miss two losses to the Bucks in May.
But the Nets beat Milwaukee when it mattered most without him, getting 19 points from Joe Harris and 18 points and 14 rebounds from Blake Griffin.
“We try not to be too emotional out there, but losing one of your leaders like that on the first play of the game, we had to regroup for a couple of minutes and figure out what was next, but I think the coaches, the coaching staff did a great job of moving forward,” Durant said. “Guys came in and just tried to play extremely hard. We didn’t care about anything else but playing and executing the game plan and just leaving it all out there.”
And they got a solid defensive effort despite giving up plenty of size, limiting the Bucks to 13 points below their NBA-leading average.
Durant grabbed 10 rebounds and Irving had eight assists, throwing some spectacular passes as the Nets moved the ball around quickly and had the Bucks a step or more behind all night.
“We’ve got to guard defensively together, especially against this team,” Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo said.
Game 2 is Monday night.
“Our guys got to execute defensively regardless of who’s on the court, execute offensively regardless of who’s on the court,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “We’ve got to be better. We’ll be better Monday.”
Antetokounmpo had 34 points and 11 rebounds, but the Bucks were just 6 for 30 from 3-point range and lost for the first time in the playoffs after storming past Miami in a first-round sweep.
Brook Lopez scored 19 points for the Bucks and Jrue Holiday had 17 points and nine rebounds. Khris Middleton finished with 13 points and 13 rebounds but was 6 for 23, missing all five 3-pointers.
A series that had talent all over the rosters started on a down note when Harden had to come out of the game after just 43 seconds, walking to the back after the Nets called timeout before they had even scored. He had appeared to grab at the back of his right leg after a drive toward the basket on Brooklyn’s first possession before.
“When you prepare for a game and he’s such a big part of the game plan that can throw you off. But I was proud of the guys that they didn’t get rattled, they hung in there and got the win,” Nash said, adding that he had no update on Harden’s status.
Harden predicted a day earlier this series would be a showdown.
His show might already be over.
The Bucks led 32-30 after one but the Nets sprinted past them with an 8-0 run for a 47-42 lead. Another run of eight in a row pushed it to 59-48 on Irving’s layup with 3:22 left in the half, but Milwaukee closed well to get within 63-61 at the break.
The NBA’s two highest-scoring teams played at a dizzying pace, where look down after a basket and they might already be shooting at the other end by the time you looked up.
The pace favored the Nets, who pulled away for good in the third quarter.
Durant picked up his fourth foul with 1:36 left in the period, quickly waving his hands toward Nash that he didn’t want to come out of the game. Lopez made the two free throws to cut it to nine, but Durant then scored seven straight points, with his 3-pointer pushing it to 98-82 with 5.1 seconds remaining.
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Bucks: Milwaukee gave P.J. Tucker his first start of the playoffs. He had seven points. … Milwaukee was 4 for 19 on 3s in the first half. Bryn Forbes missed all four of his attempts before making one late in the game.
Nets: Brooklyn remained without F Jeff Green for a fourth straight game because of a left foot injury. Nash said Friday he would be considered day to day after Game 1. … The Nets announced a sellout of 15,750 — featuring Beyonce and Jay-Z — with 98% fully vaccinated. … Mike James had 12 points after playing less than 10 minutes in the first round against Boston.
The right hamstring forced Harden to miss 18 straight and 20 of 21 games late in the season. He missed games on April 1 and 4 with what was called tightness, then returned April 5 but made it through just four minutes before leaving again, with that injury termed a strain. He didn’t play again until May 12.