The Brooklyn Nets first lost James Harden 47 seconds into their Eastern Conference semifinal series with the Milwaukee Bucks. Now, after the Bucks evened the series at two games apiece with a 107-96 victory at Milwaukee's Fiserv Forum on Sunday afternoon, the Nets head back to New York for Game 5 on Tuesday facing the possibility of playing the biggest game of their season without two of their three superstars.
Kyrie Irving was unable to return to Sunday's contest with a sprained right ankle. After Irving made a layup midway through the second quarter, he landed on Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo's foot. Irving's right foot bent significantly and he immediately appeared to be in considerable pain. He stayed on the court for several minutes before eventually getting to his feet and walking back to the visiting locker room without assistance but with a pronounced limp.
Brooklyn ruled Irving out for the rest of the game just before the start of the second half. Nets coach Steve Nash said after the game that X-rays on Irving's ankle were negative. Irving left the building using crutches and with his ankle in a walking boot, sources told ESPN's Rachel Nichols.
"I have no idea what is going to happen with [Irving] in the coming days," Nash said. "We will cross our fingers and hope that it is better than I don't know -- better than what -- better than missing the next game?
"We all have to pitch in. We all got to play together."
When interviewed on the court by Nichols after the game, Antetokounmpo said that he wasn't even aware of what Irving hurt when he initially hit the floor.
"I really don't know," Antetokounmpo said, when asked what happened from his perspective on the play. "I thought he got hit in the groin at first. When I went back to the locker room, they said that he sprained his ankle. I wish him a quick recovery, and hopefully he can be ready for Game 5. Wish him nothing but the best, but we have to keep focusing on ourselves, keep focusing on the task at hand, keep having fun and try to win games."
Over the next two days, an already intense focus on Brooklyn's injury situation, with Harden recovering from right hamstring tightness -- the same hamstring injury that kept him out for several weeks late in the regular season -- in the opening moments of Game 1 in Brooklyn will intensify if Irving is on the shelf, as well.
Before Sunday's game, Nash -- who had said multiple times in recent days that Harden has been "progressing," offered more specifics, saying that he's doing on-court work, including shooting, and still working through his rehabilitation. Nash said that while Harden was progressing toward a return, he didn't have all the details of the exact work Harden is able to do.
When asked Sunday about the potential for Harden to return in Game 5 with the possibility of Irving missing the contest, Nash said that any decision regarding Harden's availability would be made independently of Irving.
"I don't want James to be rushed back," Nash said. "If he's able to play next game, or the game after, that's fantastic. If he's not, we don't want to rush him back and jeopardize doing something worse or making this a long-term injury."
After the Nets dictated the first two games in Brooklyn -- even with Harden sidelined for virtually both of them -- this series is in an entirely different place after the Bucks held serve and won both games in Milwaukee, squeaking out a victory in a defensive slugfest Thursday night in Game 3 before the Bucks finally saw their offense come alive in Game 4.
Milwaukee started to see its perimeter shots fall in Game 4, converting 16-for-47 from 3-point range in the victory. And while the 34% conversion rate from deep wasn't anything special, it was a vast improvement from the 24.7% clip (22-for-89) that the Bucks shot through the first three games of the series.
And with the possibility of both Harden and Irving being sidelined, Milwaukee will be able to direct even more attention toward Brooklyn's remaining superstar, Kevin Durant, who had 28 points in Sunday's loss but went 9-for-25 from the field and shot a combined 20-for-53 in the Nets' two losses in Milwaukee to even the series.
Nash took exception with some of the defense Brooklyn played against Durant -- specifically the effort displayed by Durant's longtime friend and fellow Texas Longhorn P.J. Tucker. Nash said it bordered on "non-basketball" physicality with his aggressive defense the past two games.
"He's playing extremely physical and made it difficult," Nash said. "That's his role on their team and I thought it was borderline non-basketball physical at times, but that's the playoffs. You have to adapt and adjust. Something definitely in a sense changed from the way the game was played in Brooklyn and here in Milwaukee."
For his part, Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer scoffed at the idea that Tucker was doing anything out of line with his play.
"He's just guarding him," Budenholzer said. "If that's not basketball, I don't know what is. So, I think we've got to just keep the same mindset, to guard him, to make everything tough, so nothing changes."
While nothing may change with the approach to guarding Durant, obviously everything changes for the Nets as they will wait to see what the prognosis on both of their injured stars. Bucks guard Pat Connaughton, however, said that Milwaukee can ill-afford to overlook the rest of Brooklyn's roster -- much of which played a part in dismantling the Bucks in the first two games of this series.
"We actually said it doesn't matter who is out there," Connaughton said. "We want to make sure we continue to play our type of game. Obviously James went down in Game 1, Kyrie went down at one point today, but they have a lot of talented individuals and a lot of talent as a collective unit on that team.
"For us, it's about continuing to focus on our brand of basketball. The toughness on the defensive end, the things we instill in ourselves and in each other, and the ball movement, player movement that we have on the offensive end. I think that is the most important thing as we continue to move forward."
Still, it was clear the Nets were -- understandably -- impacted by Irving's departure from the game. While Brooklyn opened the game 6-for-14 from 3-point range, the Nets were just 4-for-19 after Irving's injury and committed 10 turnovers over the final 30 minutes of action.
"We missed him, obviously," Nash said. "It was a big adjustment tonight to play without him and James, but we've had that type of year. So, we have to find a way to figure it out, to look at the tape and get better."