The Nets came to Milwaukee atop the Eastern Conference. After getting swept by the Bucks in a huge two-game series, they left as close to third place as to first.
They blew a fourth-quarter lead and imploded in a 124-118 loss before a sellout crowd of 3,280 at Fiserv Forum. And it may turn out to be a costly defeat.
The Bucks (41-24) looked hungrier. Nastier. And — with James Harden still out with a right hamstring strain — Milwaukee looked better.
Kyrie Irving had a game-high 38 points and Kevin Durant added 32. But Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 36 for the Bucks, who gouged the Nets on the glass 55-39, and flipped the game with an 18-1 fourth-quarter run.
After arriving in first place in the East, a half-game ahead of the 76ers, the Nets (43-23) lost Sunday and Tuesday. Not only have they fallen 1 ½ games behind idle Philadelphia, but they’re now also just 1 ½ clear of the hard-charging Bucks.
The Nets also have lost the season-series tiebreaker to Milwaukee and sit just a game ahead in the loss column, so even holding on to the second seed is no sure thing. Not with Philadelphia enjoying the easiest stretch run in the entire NBA, and Milwaukee having the fourth-softest in the East before Tuesday.
The Nets may well come to rue this one. They led 103-97 early in the fourth quarter, only to surrender that game-deciding 18-1 run.
The Nets were 0-for-5 with a couple of turnovers during the skid, which lasted more than four minutes. Milwaukee, meanwhile, went eight-for-14, including an all-too-easy drive by Khris Middleton (23 points).
Middleton’s driving floater came against no defensive resistance whatsoever, making the Nets’ deficit 115-104 with 5:52 to play.
A 10-3 Nets run eventually cut the deficit to 122-118 on free throws by Irving with a minute left. But they got no closer.
While plenty can happen between now and the regular-season finale, the Nets and Bucks are on a collision course to meet in the second round.
The Nets won the first meeting, Jan. 18 at Barclays Center. That, however, was behind 34 points, 12 rebounds and six assists from Harden, the third MVP on these teams’ rosters (after Durant and Antetokounmpo), and one who could tilt the deck towards the Nets. They hope.
Harden was sorely missed in these last two losses.
Irving’s pull-up 3-pointer gave the Nets a 51-48 lead with 6:15 left in the second quarter, but they allowed an 18-7 run to close out the half down by eight.
It was knotted at 55-all after a Landry Shamet 3-pointer with 4:02 remaining before the break. But the Nets suddenly went ice-cold and gave up the momentum.
The Nets missed six straight shots and committed a couple of turnovers in conceding nine unanswered points.
Irving’s turnover off an inbound pass led to a Bobby Portis transition dunk. And Middleton’s free throws left the Nets in a 64-55 hole that proved too deep to climb out of.
They went three minutes without a point, and 3:34 without a basket, until Irving’s layup with 28.5 seconds left in the half. That drought cost them dearly.
It may not be clear how much it costs until the regular season is done and the playoff seeds are set.
The Nets still trailed 78-68 after a Jrue Holiday 3-pointer with 6:55 to go in the third quarter. But after having gone big to start off the game, unsuccessfully, the Nets went small and found at least a little success. A 10-3 run got them within 81-78 on an Irving bank shot.
Down 85-78 after an Antetokounmpo finger roll with 2:51 remaining in the third, the Nets closed the period on a 16-7 spurt. Bruce Brown came in and brought some much-needed grit, and the game almost instantly got chippier.
Durant hit a 3-pointer to put the Nets back ahead 89-88, and he got into some long-running trash talk with P.J. Tucker that lasted several possessions. Blake Griffin got hit with a technical, and the Nets pulled ahead 94-92 after three.
Both Irving and Durant sat to open the fourth, but Mike James found first Jeff Green, then Griffin for corner 3s to pad the lead to 100-95. He hit a side-step 3-pointer of his own to make it 103-97. But it was a lead the Nets couldn’t hold.