Brooklyn gets breathing room in Eastern Conference playoff push

MILWAUKEE — After Kenny Atkinson fulfills his postgame duties, loosens his tie and boards the team plane to Indianapolis, he plans to have a glass of red wine. The head coach of the Brooklyn Nets is cautious to get too high off a win over the Milwaukee Bucks, but he doesn’t want the accomplishment to pass without indulging some.

“Sometimes you have to celebrate,” Atkinson said. “Then I wake up tomorrow morning, get my workout in and I’ll be ready for Indiana.”

On Saturday afternoon, the Nets secured a 133-128 win over the league-leading Bucks. Sure, Milwaukee was without MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo due to a sore left calf. But the middle of the East is in a tight race for playoff spots, and the Nets won’t discriminate against wins. The victory brings Brooklyn’s record to 40-40 and because Brooklyn owns the head-to-head tie-breaker against the 40-40 Orlando Magic, the Nets move up to sixth seed in the East through Saturday’s games.

The bottom of the East’s playoff picture is far from finalized. On Sunday, all five teams still jockeying for an Eastern Conference playoff spot – the Nets, Magic, Detroit Pistons, Miami Heat and Charlotte Hornets – will play.

“For us, it’s win or go home literally,” said reserve big Jared Dudley. “I know we look at Miami losing, this and that, but we want to control our own fate.”

Whether or not Brooklyn’s win over the Bucks takes any pressure off the team depends on who you ask. Dudley says it does, while All-Star D’Angelo Russell maintains that the victory needs to be wiped from his memory in less than 24 hours.

“Now it’s one game at a time,” Russell said. “I am going to say it after Indiana, too, if you ask me the same ass question: every game is big. We have to treat it like it’s the last one. We can’t get comfortable. It’s too late.”

There are several scenarios that secure a Nets playoff berth, but the simplest would be winning their last regular season game at home against the Heat. Brooklyn is 0-2 against the Pacers so far this season and 1-2 against Miami.

Miami is currently on a 3-game losing streak and on the outside of the playoffs looking in. The Heat’s recent injuries may help bolster Brooklyn’s case. Josh Richardson – who is averaging a career high 16.6 points for the Heat – is expected to be out the next two weeks with a groin injury.

It took a collaborative effort for the Nets to topple Milwaukee. Eight Brooklyn players scored double-figures, with Russell leading the way with 25 points and 10 assists. Eric Bledsoe led the way for Milwaukee with 33 points and 11 assists. The Nets outscored the Bucks 28-9 off turnovers, the second-most points Brooklyn has scored off turnovers this season.

Four Nets scored in double figures off the bench, led by wing Caris LeVert‘s 24 and Dudley’s 16. Brooklyn’s spread-the-love-around formula is something that Atkinson said he hopes to implement more over the last two games of the regular season and in the playoffs, if they get in.

“I had a revelation that we need to play 10 guys,” Atkinson said. “I’m not promising I’m going to do that every game. Tonight we decided to spread it around a little more and it worked out for us.”

The Bucks struggled defensively through the first three quarters, giving up 108 points before the last period began. With 2:30 remaining, the Bucks led 128-126, after Milwaukee trailed by as many as 12 in the final period.

The Bucks never scored again, coming up empty on their final four possessions.

A travel by Khris Middleton led to a 42-second Nets possession that ultimately ended with a go-ahead 3-pointer from Joe Harris. Coming out of a Bucks timeout, Milwaukee shooting guard Sterling Brown missed two free throws, and then Russell’s driving layup with just under a minute remaining sealed the win for Brooklyn.

Asked if the win over the East’s No. 1 seed gives him any confidence should they face Milwaukee in the playoffs, Atkinson quickly said, “No.”

“I just think they’re that good,” Atkinson said. “We needed (this win). We needed it in its own little context here, but we know if we have to face ’em in the playoffs, it’s a monumental task.”

Now, Atkinson will pop the cork and begin to plot his plan of attack against the Indiana Pacers.

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