Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton finally are getting a little more help, while Kevin Durant keeps seeing his superstar cohorts get hurt.
And now a second-round playoff series that once looked like a Brooklyn Nets runaway suddenly is up for grabs.
Antetokounmpo scored 34 points and the Bucks rolled to a 107-96 Game 4 victory on Sunday to tie their series with the Nets, who lost Kyrie Irving to a sprained right ankle.
The Bucks erased a 2-0 deficit by winning two straight in Milwaukee. Game 5 is Tuesday night at Brooklyn.
“We’re very happy, but we’ve got to keep getting better, keep playing together and hopefully we can go into Brooklyn and take one,” Antetokounmpo said.
Brooklyn’s immediate concern is the health of its superstar trio.
Irving got hurt midway through the second quarter and didn’t return. The Nets already are missing nine-time All-Star and 2018 MVP James Harden, who hasn’t played since the opening minute of Game 1 due to right hamstring tightness.
That puts even more pressure on Durant, who has carried the Nets this series and provided 28 points and 13 rebounds Sunday. The only other Net in double figures was Irving, who had 11 points before leaving.
Nets coach Steve Nash said after the game that X-rays taken on Irving’s ankle were negative and that the seven-time All-Star’s status for Game 5 is uncertain at this point.
“We’ll have to see how it goes,” Nash said. “We’ll cross our fingers.”
After Irving made a basket in the paint to cut the Bucks’ lead to 44-40 midway through the second quarter, his left leg hit the right leg of Antetokounmpo on his way down. Irving landed awkwardly, his ankle rolled and he clutched at it as play briefly continued on the other end of the floor.
When play stopped due to a change of possession, team officials went to check on Irving, who appeared in pain on the floor before walking to the locker room. The Nets announced at halftime that Irving wouldn’t return.
The Bucks already had taken the lead for good even before Irving’s injury.
They got more balance Sunday after eking out an 86-83 victory in Game 3, when Middleton and Antetokounmpo combined for 68 points, 79% of the Bucks’ scoring output. That marked the highest percentage of a team’s points that a duo ever combined to score in an NBA playoff game.
Middleton scored 19 points, Jrue Holiday had 14, P.J. Tucker got 13, and Bryn Forbes added 10 for the Bucks.
After the Nets scored 13 straight points to take a 34-23 lead early in the second quarter, Milwaukee responded with a 19-4 run to take the lead for good. That stretch featured a 12-0 spurt including a 4-point play from Middleton, two corner 3-pointers from Tucker, and a dunk from Antetokounmpo.
“They went on a run,” forward Jeff Green said, “and we just didn’t bounce back.”
The Nets removed their starters as the Bucks led, 99-84, with 4:28 left.
As the final seconds ticked off the clock, the Fiserv Forum crowd chanted, “Bucks In Six!” That’s been a rallying cry among the fan base ever since former Milwaukee guard Brandon Jennings incorrectly predicted his eighth-seeded Bucks would win a 2013 first-round series over the top-seeded Heat in six games.
“Now it’s a three-game series,” Nash said. “We’ve got to get home, rest up and get our minds and bodies ready. Stay positive.”
Suns sweep Nuggets, Jokic ejected
The Phoenix Suns roared into the Western Conference finals for the first time in 11 years with a testy 125-118 victory over Denver that completed a four-game sweep of the Nuggets and included league MVP Nikola Jokic’s ejection.
Chris Paul scored 37 points and Devin Booker added 34 in a physical game marred by Jokic’s ejection.
Jokic was tossed with 3:52 left in the third quarter and the Nuggets trailing, 83-76, after his hard right-hand windmill swipe sent the basketball flying but also caught Cameron Payne in the face.
Booker took umbrage at the hard foul and got in the big man’s face before teammates and coaches pulled everyone apart.
Officials assessed a double technical on Jokic and Booker and ejected the MVP after upping the call to a Flagrant 2. Jokic finished with 22 points and 11 rebounds in 28 minutes.
The Nuggets and their fans at Ball Arena were frustrated that they were getting called for ticky-tack fouls yet Jokic wasn’t getting the calls expected of a Most Valuable Player.
With their franchise-record seventh straight playoff victory, the Suns advanced to the conference championship for the first time since 2010 — the last time they reached the playoffs.
After knocking out LeBron James and the defending champion Lakers in Round 1, the Suns quickly dispatched Denver and made Jokic the first MVP to get swept in a playoff series since Magic Johnson in 1989 by the Pistons in the NBA Finals.
Will Barton led Denver, which trailed by 13 heading into the fourth quarter, with 25 points, Michael Porter Jr. added 20 and Monte Morris 19.
Jokic’s ejection came 48 hours after an emotional celebration before Game 3 in which the Serbian dedicated his MVP trophy to his teammates, coaches, trainers, and the front office.
The only NBA player to play all 72 games this season, Jokic spent the fourth quarter in his locker room as his teammates’ comeback without him fell short.
Despite the sweep and Jokic’s early exit, fans chanted, “MVP! MVP” as they streamed out of the arena.
Hammon gets interviews
According to reports, Spurs assistant coach Becky Hammon will interview with the Magic and Trail Blazers for their head coaching vacancies. Hammon became the first woman to act as head coach in an NBA game after Gregg Popovich was ejected a game against the Lakers in December. Hammon has been an assistant with San Antonio since her 16-year WNBA playing career ended in 2014.