Blake Griffin (305329)
Credit: Bill Moore photo

The Brooklyn Nets, the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference, have thus far upheld their status as the favorite to make it to the NBA Finals after taking a 2-0 lead over the East’s No. 3 seed, the Milwaukee Bucks, in their conference semifinal matchup. The Nets won Game 1 at the Barclays Center on Saturday by 115-107 and then easily defeated the Bucks on Monday night in Brooklyn by 125-86.

When the Bucks swept the Miami Heat 4-0 in their opening round playoff series, and the Nets had a 4-1 gentleman’s sweep over the Boston Celtics in round one, many were expecting an epic battle between them. But even without James Harden, who exited Game 1 after only 43 seconds with a right hamstring injury and did not return, and also sat out Monday’s game, the Nets protected their home court.

In Game 1, with Harden gone from the arena and undergoing an MRI, Brooklyn went up 66-61 at halftime then put together a 35-23 run in the third quarter. Although the Nets only scored 17 in the fourth, they were able to hold off the Bucks whose 23 points weren’t enough.

“Losing one of your leaders like that on the first play of the game,” said Nets forward Kevin Durant, “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 paced the Nets with 29 points and 10 rebounds in the victory but his teammates stepped up as well, especially the bench players. Starting guard Kyrie Irving dropped 25 points and dished 8 assists, and starting small forward Joe Harris had 19.

But it was reserve Blake Griffin’s 18 points and 14 rebounds, and backup point guard Mike James’ 12 points and seven rebounds, that solidified the win. The Bucks’ two-time league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo had a game-high 34 points and 11 boards.

“Guys came in and just tried to play extremely hard,” said Durant. “We didn’t care about anything else but playing and executing the game plan, and just leaving it all out there.” Which is what they did in Game 2 two nights later.

With Harden sitting on the bench in street clothes, Brooklyn continued to execute, blitzing the Bucks from the outset with a 36-19 first quarter. On defense they effectively contained Antetokounmpo, holding him to just 18 points, 10 points below his 28 points per game playoff average coming into Game 2. Ending the first half with a 24 point lead, the Nets upped it to 49 in closing out the victory. “I think we’re capable of greatness every single night,” said Irving afterwards.

Durant, who was the Nets’ leading scorer again with 32 points, viewed it as the Nets handling their business. “For the most part, we just did what we were supposed to do, win two at home,” noted Duran. “We’ve got to see if this game is going to travel on the road for us, and we’ve got to stay locked in.”

The series moves to Milwaukee for Game 3 on Thursday night and Game 4 on Sunday afternoon.