As he hoisted countless jump shots during his offseason training, Bruce Brown kept one motivating thought in the back of his head.
If the Milwaukee Bucks had more respect for his offensive ability, the Brooklyn Nets might have been NBA champions instead of the Bucks.
“They were just leaving me open, and I just take that as disrespect,” Brown said Thursday morning, flashing back to the Bucks slipping past the Nets in a six-game series in the Eastern Conference semifinals. “Growing up, I was an offensive player. Being in the league, it’s kind of a little disrespectful, for sure.”
On Thursday morning, Brown was eager to find out who was going to defend him hours later in the final regular-season game between the Nets and the Bucks. The last time the teams met on Feb. 26, Brown showed his worth with three 3-pointers and the go-ahead shot with 98 seconds remaining to fuel a Brooklyn win. Brook Lopez, who drew Brown during the playoff series, missed that game for the Bucks but was set to play at Barclays Center on Thursday.
After taking 5.2 shots per game as a role player in the five-game series win against the Celtics, Brown was forced into 7.6 shots per game by the Bucks. He connected on just 2 of 11 from 3-point range.
The outcome weighed on Brown’s mind, “Probably the whole summer,” the defense-first Brown said. “Definitely them putting Brook Lopez on me and how I was a factor but not as much as I wanted to be. I hope they do that [again]. … I’m just looking forward to it, because we all know what happened last time we played them.”
The difference this year, Brown said, is a summer spent practicing shooting off the catch has made it so he has “that confidence of knowing when the ball is going to come and being ready to shoot the ball.” He is a 36.7 percent 3-point shooter, up from 28.8 percent last season.
Thursday marked the first time since Game 4 of that back-and-forth series that the Bucks faced a Nets team with both Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. Since then, Irving missed the final three playoff games with a severe ankle sprain and this season’s first two matchups under the COVID-19 restrictions for the unvaccinated. Durant missed the last meeting during a 21-game absence with a sprained MCL.
The Bucks presented the last true measuring stick against a championship contender before the playoffs for the Nets, who will close out the regular season against the Hawks, Rockets, Knicks, Cavaliers and Pacers.
“This is a great test for us to see where we’re at,” guard Patty Mills said before tipoff. “You don’t need extra juice for a game like this, and I’m sure it will be a playoff type atmosphere.”
With the top four teams (including the Bucks) and bottom three (including the Nets) in the expanded 10-team Eastern Conference postseason bracket closely bunched together, it’s possible that Nets-Bucks could be a first-round playoff matchup if the Nets survive the play-in series. But the Nets are not talking like an underdog hoping for a puncher’s chance of making a deep playoff run.
“Look, we’re the Brooklyn Nets and we’ve always had a target on our back,” said Mills, who joined the team last offseason. “Especially coming into an exciting place like our home, we’re going to get everyone’s best.”
It’s already known that the Bucks’ best is championship caliber, even if the Nets were an overtime period away from being the team that advanced.
“I think whoever came out of that series was going to win the championship,” Brown said, “and they came out of that series.”