The Nets had just a Big 1 to the Bucks’ Big 3, but two big runs in the second half Saturday night were enough to knock off the defending champs.
A four-minute stretch in the third quarter, during which the Nets nearly blew the doors off of Fiserv Forum, and a strong closing four-plus minutes of the game lifted the undermanned Nets to a 126-123 win in Milwaukee.
Kyrie Irving, playing for the first time in two weeks because the Nets had four straight games in New York City around the All-Star break, scored a season-high 38 points and helped key both second-half runs.
The Nets outscored the Bucks 23-4 during a dominant stretch in the third quarter to take a 13-point lead, but the Bucks withstood that punch and came back to take a 112-105 lead with under five minutes left in the game.
That’s when the Nets whipped up one last spurt, using an 8-0 run to regain the lead and closing the game on a 21-11 run. A pair of blocks from Andre Drummond and James Johnson in the final minute helped secure the win, as did a missed free throw by the Bucks’ Grayson Allen with 14.6 seconds left.
Irving then sank a pair of free throws with 8.9 seconds left to push the lead to 121-118.
The Nets had a scare seconds later when Seth Curry purposely fouled Khris Middleton on the floor. The referee initially ruled Middleton to be in the shooting motion before the crew huddled and determined the foul happened before the shot, giving Middleton two free throws instead of three.
The teams traded free throws in the final seconds, but Irving and LaMarcus Aldridge made enough to ice the win, with Giannis Antetokounmpo missing a potential game-tying 3-pointer at the buzzer.
The Nets (32-29) avoided sinking to just one game above .500, which would have been their first time there since they were 4-3.
The Bucks (36-25) had their full Big 3 intact, getting a combined 73 points from Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Jrue Holiday — plus a huge 30-point night from Bobby Portis.
The Nets left the former Knick open too often from beyond the arc and he took advantage, shooting a career-high 8-for-14 from 3-point range. He went on an 8-0 run by himself late in the third quarter to close Milwaukee’s deficit, then sank back-to-back 3-pointers early in the fourth to put the Bucks back on top, 101-100.
Another bucket from Portis later put the Bucks up 112-105 before the Nets went on one last run, with a 3 from Irving giving them a 113-112 lead. After the teams traded buckets, Bruce Brown drained a 3 to give the Nets a 118-116 lead, which they never relinquished.
A pair of alley-oops to Antetokounmpo early in the third quarter had the Bucks looking as if they were ready to pull away, but the Nets hung around and then used a 12-0 run to take a 76-70 lead.
They then built on that lead, with strong defense and 3-pointers from Irving, Curry and Brown extending their four-minute spurt to 23-4 as they went up 87-74 midway through the third quarter.
But Portis answered for the Bucks to get them within 96-93 heading to the fourth quarter.
The Nets improved to 5-14 since Kevin Durant sprained his left MCL on Jan. 15. Instead of treading water without their top superstar, the Nets’ tailspin had dropped them to eighth place in the Eastern Conference coming into Saturday. But with Durant’s return imminent, they put together one of their best games without him to escape Milwaukee with the win.
Freshly signed Goran Dragic, playing for the first time since Nov. 13, chipped in six points in 14 minutes off the bench.