The Milwaukee Bucks will raise their 2021 title banner and receive their championship rings on Tuesday, just before a season opener against a Brooklyn Nets team missing a star player they hoped would deliver silverware to their franchise.
Milwaukee defeated Brooklyn in a seven-game Eastern Conference semi-finals series en route to their first NBA title in 50 years last term.
It was an engrossing series in which Milwaukee prevailed largely due to their superior health, the Nets' cause hindered by injury struggles for James Harden and Kyrie Irving.
And they will again be minus Irving for the season opener in Wisconsin, though for a markedly different reason.
Irving's refusal to receive a coronavirus vaccine, and the fluctuations in his ability that would cause with mandates in major cities preventing unvaccinated individuals from entering public spaces, led the Nets to decide he will not play for the team until the issue is resolved.
As a result, much of the burden will again fall on Kevin Durant, though he will at least have the assistance of Harden, as the Nets aim to get a measure of revenge on Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks.
Even with Irving out of the picture, the Nets look set to contend with the Bucks for superiority in the East, and this encounter may provide an early indication of which team has the upper hand in 2021-22.
Milwaukee Bucks – Jrue Holiday
While Antetokounmpo is the man around whom everything revolves for the Bucks, he receives substantial support from Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday.
It is the latter who is the chief facilitator for Milwaukee. Holiday's 10.5 assists per 48 minutes last postseason ranked fifth among players to play in at least 10 playoff games.
The Bucks will look for him to have a similar influence on their title defence, starting with the visit of the Nets.
Brooklyn Nets – James Harden
Harden was in the MVP conversation last season until a hamstring issue derailed his campaign.
His one full regular-season appearance against the Bucks saw him post a double-double with 34 points and 12 assists.
With Irving unavailable, getting that kind of performance from Harden would be critical to the Nets' hopes of opening the season on a high.
KEY BATTLE – Giannis vs. KD
Though both teams have plenty of depth at their disposal, the unquestioned headline act of the season opener will be the heavyweight matchup between Antetokounmpo and Durant.
Last season, the All-Star duo definitely brought out the best in each other.
In 10 games against the Nets across the regular season and postseason, Antetokounmpo only once scored fewer than 30 points. He averaged 61.5 points/assists/rebounds per 48 minutes and had an effective field goal percentage of 57.9.
In three of those games, Durant went over 40 points, with the two-time Finals MVP averaging 58.5 points/assists/rebounds per 48 minutes and posting an effective field goal percentage of 55.6.
However, Durant's plus-minus across all meetings with the Bucks was minus 18 compared to plus 26 for Antetokounmpo, perhaps speaking to his lack of support in the postseason.
With Harden in his corner for this contest, Durant will hope to flip the script in that regard and spoil the Bucks' celebration.
HEAD TO HEAD
The Bucks will be confident they have the edge after their postseason defeat of the Nets and also won each of their home games against Brooklyn last season. A momentous night of celebration for Milwaukee is not the time to let their advantage slip.