Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo (305841)
Credit: Bill Moore photo

Before being derailed by injuries, the Brooklyn Nets were favored by oddsmakers and most close followers of the NBA to win this season’s championship. They had exceeding star power in three of the best offensive talents to ever play. When healthy, the trio of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden are individually and collectively unable to be contained.

Their ability to creatively manufacture points from all three levels—the perimeter, mid-range and in the paint—as well as create easy scoring opportunities for teammates, presents a problem for which no opponent has an effective countermeasure. But the East’s No. 2 seed Nets’ full potential was never realized this season.

Although Harden exhibited selflessness and toughness by playing on a clearly prohibitive right hamstring in Games 5, 6 and 7 of the Nets’ Eastern Conference semifinals series against the No. 3 seed Milwaukee Bucks after being sidelined for the first three, the supremely skillful guard served more as a decoy for Durant than applying his normal diamond-making pressure on the Bucks’ stout defense.

With Irving watching the last three games of the series in street clothes after spraining his right ankle midway through the second quarter of Game 4, Durant engineered one of the most spectacular acts of carrying a team in the NBA’s long history in a losing effort. His brilliance included a remarkable 49-point, 17-rebound, 10-assists masterpiece in the Nets’ 114-108 Game 5 victory, and a masterful 48-point showing in an exhausting 115-111 Game 7 overtime loss. What’s perhaps most noteworthy is Durant logged a combined 101 minutes.

The Nets are a near certainty to open next season as the betting favorite to earn the franchise’s first title since winning the ABA championship in 1976 led by postseason MVP Julius Irving. So the Eastern Conference Finals proceed with the Bucks and the Atlanta Hawks, teams that are worthy of being the last two standing.They began their best-of-seven series last night in Milwaukee in Game 1 with Game 2 scheduled for tomorrow. They’ll move to Atlanta for Game 3 on Sunday and Game 4 next Tuesday.

The Bucks are anchored by two-time league most valuable player Giannis Antetokounmpo (2019, 2020), who was sensational versus the Nets, hanging 40 points and 13 rebounds on them in the decisive Game 7. In addition to being an offensive force, the 26-year-old, 6-11 forward is also one of basketball’s premiere defenders earning Defensive Player of the Year a season ago and making NBA All-Defensive First-Team for the third time this season.

The No. 5 seed Hawks are driven by their dynamic, 6-1, 22-year-old point guard Trae Young, who confounded the Knicks and riled up the Madison Square Garden crowd during the Hawks’ 4-1 opening round series win. He followed up his theatrics against the Knicks by willing the Hawks to a 4-3 victory over the No. 1 seed Philadelphia 76ers in their semifinals matchup.