- Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) is a senior writer for ESPN Digital and Print.
Joel Embiid’s knee issues and the demise of the Los Angeles Lakers have upped the chances that the real NBA Finals begin Saturday in Brooklyn between the Milwaukee Bucks and the Brooklyn Nets.
The contrast between these juggernauts is irresistible. The big-city Nets bring the blue blood Big Three — a No. 1 and No. 2 overall pick who conspired to make the Nets their fiefdom and the No. 3 pick who watched from afar before flexing his muscle to join up. All three are international superstars — commercial giants.
The small-market, Midwestern Bucks bring their Big Three consisting of a little-known prospect from the Greek minor leagues (picked 15th), the NBA’s perennial “most underrated player” (picked 17th) and a second-round pick who was once a throw-in to a deal centered around two top-10 picks named Brandon.
Jrue Holiday transformed the Bucks, but he also represents the road not taken for Brooklyn. The Nets had the assets to trade for Holiday. Brooklyn already had two high-usage scoring stars in Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. Holiday, a rugged multipositional defender who doesn’t crave the ball, was the kind of complementary star who would balance their team.
The Nets demurred and waited for perhaps the most ball-dominant superstar in NBA history in Harden. They chose infinite offense.
This clash also brings the desired amount of mystery. The Nets’ Big Three have played zero minutes together against Milwaukee — Irving missed the first game, Harden the two-game series in Milwaukee in early May. Each team is missing a crucial glue guy: the irrepressible Donte DiVincenzo for the Bucks, and jack-of-all-trades Jeff Green for the Nets. (Green appears likely to return at some point, sources say.)
We don’t even know either starting lineup for sure — unusual for teams of this quality entering a series of this magnitude.
In that first game without Irving, Holiday mostly defended Harden. In the final two, with Harden injured, Holiday took the Irving assignment. Obviously, he can only guard one of them now.
In any series, everything flows outward from individual matchups. If Player X can’t guard Player Y without crisis-level help, all the pieces get rearranged.
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