Ian Eagle breaks down ‘tough’ Nets-Bucks playoff matchup

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Play-by-play man Ian Eagle, who calls NBA games for TNT and the YES network, gives his blow-by-blow insights on the Nets-Bucks series and more.

Q: These Nets are perceived now as villains, correct?

A: (Laugh) Yeah … I think they’re aware of it, and they’re OK with it. That means people are paying attention. That means that they’ve resonated with the public in some manner — they didn’t choose the role, the role chose them. And sometimes there’s nothing you can do about that. There are NBA people that have no skin in the game, yet find themselves rooting against the Nets in some way.

Q: Because?

A: Because they’re ultra-talented (chuckle), and when something gets that much attention in our society, for every action there’s a reaction. That’s just how it is.

Q: How have they confronted the championship-or-bust expectations?

A: Head-on. They understand that this team will be judged on their playoff results. Everybody knew what they signed up for. This is what Brooklyn had been building for. [GM] Sean Marks is really smart, very shrewd, and I’m not sure that anybody could have come in and done the job that he’s done. He had a clear plan when he took over, and each step along the way, he’s executed it in the right manner.

Q: Describe the relationship between the team and Brooklyn.

A: I sense a feeling of pride in the borough, that this team is representing them, and more people around the country are seeing Brooklyn on the bigger stage. How they fit into the overall landscape of New York remains this constant question. But, I think what Sean Marks and his staff determined when they took over … that’s not the ultimate goal — winning New York. It’s to win the NBA championship. If you win, good things will happen along the way. For many years, the Nets’ philosophy was to compete with the Knicks. And somewhere during the transition to new management, that changed. For the better. Just be a high-quality team and a top-flight organization, and you’ll see the fruits of your labor.

Ian Eagle previews the Nets-Bucks NBA playoff matchup.
Ian Eagle
E. H. Wallop

Q: What do you remember about the night Kevin Durant tore his Achilles tendon in Game 5 of the 2019 NBA Finals?

A: I remember that his name started popping up for the Knicks and the Nets, and some other teams around the NBA, and that happened on the biggest stage. I felt terrible for him individually, I can remember the pain that he had, and everything that surrounded it — Did he come back too soon? Was he pushing it? Was it connected to his previous injury? — all of those questions swirled in my head. And then, you jump ahead to: What does this mean for the following season? Which we later learned that there would be no following season for him on the court. … How would it affect free agency? How would it affect his future? Would he ever be the same player? Then when the Nets signed him, you start to think: How is this going to work? He’s gonna be off for an extended period of time, can he ever get back to who he was? And obviously, we’ve seen the answer this year.

Q: What was your reaction when KD and Kyrie Irving signed with the Nets over the Knicks?

A: It felt surreal. There was that moment where you double-take to make sure that this wasn’t a joke. Because the Nets had been a punch line for so long, and it just gave them validation as a franchise, and a level of relevance they’ve never experienced.

Q: Is KD 90 percent back to what he was? How do you gauge where he is now?

A: What I’ve seen of him, he’s 100 percent back to what he was. I have not seen any drop-off in explosiveness. … Now naturally, with age, your game changes, you adjust. He’s one of the premier jump-shooters in the NBA, so this was not a big leap for him to make some alterations to his approach. But Kevin Durant ended up on the floor as much as any player on the Nets this season, and every time, you have that one moment in your brain: Is he OK? Is he gonna get up? And again and again and again, he continued to play with reckless abandon this season. He just strikes me as the all-in kind of guy. He’s not a dip-your-toe-in-the-pool type of player. When he’s out there, he’s going all-out.

Q: He’s won two championships. What do you sense drives him?

A: I think he’s had a chip on his shoulder from the day he came into the league. And all these years later, even with a Hall of Fame career, there’s something else that drives him … whether it’s respect … whether he uses doubt from others as fuel … he gets locked in. I remember growing up, I was always in awe of Bernard King’s game face — I think Kevin Durant is at that level. He puts on a game face, and nothing is going to crack the veneer. … He’s got a lot swirling around his head, and he’s been able to use ideas in different walks of life. But when it comes to basketball, he’s all business — this guy is not screwing around.

Q: Describe Kyrie’s uniqueness on the court.

A: Having done this for so many years, and working Jason Kidd’s games and Vince Carter’s games, Stephon Marbury before that, Kenny Anderson, Derrick Coleman … I really thought that I had seen everything you could see in calling a local team’s games. It’s different than national games, of course, when you have LeBron James and Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan, you knew there would be a signature moment from those elite players. I’ve been blown away by Kyrie Irving, just from a play-by-play announcer’s point of view. You have to be on your toes every time he touches the ball. And unlike some of the other players that I mentioned, where the highlights were very obvious what they did, Kyrie can do it in a subtle manner that if you look down at your notes, you’ll miss it, because he’s doing something so special in how he handles the ball, his fakes, his hesitations, his switching of hands, his movements. I’ve been dazzled by this guy’s ability. And strictly from an announcer’s point of view, he has packed in a career’s worth of highlights into two years with the Nets, and he only played 20 games in his first year.

Q: What do you sense drives him? He’s won one championship.

A: I think he’s driven by greatness. That he believes he belongs in a certain category and caliber of player. His skill level is off the charts. And now, he’s in a situation that he wanted to be in. His head’s in a good place, he’s playing on the team that he wanted to play for, he’s playing alongside the players he wanted to be teammates with. Everything has lined up for him. He’s doing everything that he wanted to do in this sport.

Q: He’s a different kind of cat?

A: I think now that the communication has improved, that works for the Nets. They embrace the fact that he’s not like everybody else, and he’s got deep thoughts, and a unique philosophy. As long as the lines of communication are open, I think the Nets were very much the right team for him. They want this to work, and they want to create an environment where it can work, and that’s what they’ve done. I think that’s why [coach] Steve Nash was hired, and I believe that Sean Marks had a vision, he just didn’t know what the path would look like and they’ve had to make some changes along the way this season.

Q: James Harden is the only one of the Big 3 who doesn’t have a ring. Do you sense he’s the most driven of the Big 3, or no?

A: What I sense is that he’s highly motivated, and he’s playing a high-level game of chess. He’s seeing three moves ahead. And he does know what’s at stake. He understands that the window of opportunity for him is now. There’s only one thing missing from his résumé, and it’s a championship. And while they had some chances in Houston, they were never quite good enough to get over the hump. He knows that this team has what it takes to win it all, and he’s done everything in his power to be a great teammate, an outstanding leader, and doing it all with the right attitude.

James Harden
James Harden
Getty Images

Q: Do you sense that he is driven to change his reputation after leaving Houston?

A: I don’t know if it was a conscious effort on his part, but I think he’s doing what has come naturally to him here with other stars around him, and he quickly recognized what the team needed. They needed someone that was gonna hold others accountable, but do it in a way that made everybody believe. It’s one thing to call out a teammate, it’s another to do it with the reasons behind it. Respect is earned, and he’s earned that in this league. But I just think he quickly ascertained that this team needed some of the tangibles that he brings, but also intangibles.

Q: How does this Big 3 compare to the Nets’ previous Big 3: Jason Kidd, Vince Carter and Richard Jefferson?

A: That Big 3 found a real connection through the way they played, and the roles that they took on. This Big 3 has bigger personalities. … They’re global stars. You can feel that. Every team that they play, I sense that this is the biggest game on their schedule, and I can just tell from radio interviews and chatting with other broadcasters, there is a consistent curiosity about these guys. Everybody wants to know what makes them tick. Kidd, Carter, Jefferson played a highly entertaining style, it was successful. … It wasn’t creating the kind of intrigue that this has.

Q: What do you tell everyone when they ask what makes this Big 3 tick?

A: Highly driven … definitely on the same page … they understand the objective … and I think what struck me was when the team acquired Harden, it changed the whole dynamic. He became the unifier. He became the chatty type in the locker room keeping things loose, keeping it light. Everything shifted when he was acquired. Something was missing, and it was hard to put your finger on it, and then Harden provided all the missing pieces.

Q: Do you think the Nets could have been championship timber had the trade not been made?

A: I think they would have been highly competitive with [Caris] LeVert and [Jarrett] Allen, and they would have found a groove. But Harden has shouldered a lot of responsibility, on and off the court. On the court, I think everyone has settled into their proper roles. Off the court, I think that’s happened as well, where Harden is constantly communicating and challenging guys, and he’s been the bridge between the coaching staff and the players. He just brought a sense of fun and determination, and now, this group has a belief.

Q: How would you describe Nash’s coaching style?

A: He’s got the perfect temperament for this job — never too high, never too low. He listens. He wants genuine human interaction. I think he has a strong sense of self, but doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, and that’s relatable for a player or an assistant coach. He encourages input, but he also has his own convictions of how it’s supposed to be done. He’s an elite communicator.

Steve Nash (l) speaks with Kevin Durant
Steve Nash (l) speaks with Kevin Durant
NBAE via Getty Images

Q: What do you remember about him as a player?

A: I loved him as a player. He was the ultimate competitor, and he made himself into a star. There were no guarantees coming out of Santa Clara, it took a little while at the professional level to hit his stride. … He committed himself to it.

Q: Who could be an X-factor for the Nets?

A: If Joe Harris is making shots consistently, they’re tough to beat. It’s that simple. You can’t guard everybody.

Q: Whatever comes to mind: Nic Claxton?

A: So much potential. He has been like a sponge. This is gonna go down as such an important season for him because of the fact that he was around greatness, and got to see it, and got to be part of it. I think he and Harden have developed something very special, and The Beard has seen the unlimited potential that he brings.

Q: This current version of Blake Griffin?

A: Blake ended up being the perfect fit. They needed a versatile big [man], and he’s been just as important in the locker room — incredibly well-liked, well-respected. The fact that he understands his role compared to what it once was, because physically he just can’t do the things that he used to do as consistently. But he provides bursts for them. Defensively, willing to step in, take charges, hustle plays. … That’s not the common journey in this league, former superstar becomes a player that is hitting the deck going after loose balls, taking hits from bigger players — he’s done all that, and it’s inspiring. His role is going to change from round to round if this team continues to advance, and Steve Nash is going to have to monitor matchups. Boston definitely looked to take advantage of him in any switch. Whoever Griffin was guarding on switches in that Boston series, that player was looking to take over offensively. That’s gonna be a factor in this series with Milwaukee, it’s something to keep an eye on.

Q: Bruce Brown?

A: Another multifaceted player, plays bigger than he is. Team-first mentality. Can guard multiple positions, and brings just a fantastic attitude. He has been their center on a number of occasions this season — he’s 6-foot-4! He’s been more than they even anticipated when they acquired him from Detroit.

Q: Jeff Green?

A: His status will be huge, in this series and potentially beyond. Because the roles are so superfluous now, Jeff Green’s a player, he’s not a tweener. He can make 3s, he’s a tough matchup, his all-around skills have put him in a position to have an impact on this team … another well-respected, well-liked player. That’s a recurring theme with this team. They genuinely like one another. That’s one of those forgotten parts of the equation, because we get so caught up in what’s happening on the court, but what happens off the court is often times equally important and can get you through challenging moments.

Q: How do they defend the Greek Freak, Giannis Antetokounmpo?

A: (Laugh) That’s a question that every NBA team has to deal with. I think part of the philosophy will be understanding that he’s gonna get his, but they can’t allow Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday and Bryn Forbes and former Net Brook Lopez [to be] stepping above and beyond what their normal numbers would be. Part of defending a superstar is recognizing that they’re not gonna shut him down, but it’s how he gets his points, and how hard do you make him work on the other end of the floor? KD is an excellent defender, and he takes pride in it, he cares about it. I have to presume that we’re gonna see more of KD on the Greek Freak than we did during the regular season.

Q: Holiday?

A: He was the missing piece. He has shouldered so much responsibility for them. Late in games, he gets them organized. He’s a terrific pick-and-roll player. His pull-up jumper is a weapon. He’s a hybrid, and he’s one of the top on-the-ball defenders in the league. So he’ll turn defense into offense, he creates for his teammates, and he’s a very calming presence. That’s been one of the best pickups in the NBA this year.

Q: Middleton?

A: He’s the Net killer. Inside-outside skills, nice touch, tough matchup, tremendous shooter, also very stoic, nothing seems to rattle him. He’s one of the more underrated players in the league.

Q: Who could be an X-factor for the Bucks?

A: Bryn Forbes has been very good in his role. He’s also had some good performances previously as a member of the San Antonio Spurs against the Nets. Similar to Joe Harris if he’s just making shots at a ridiculous rate, they become a very difficult team to guard. I think people will point to P.J. Tucker and say his defensive presence, his toughness, trying to bottle up Kevin Durant. He’s certainly not someone that’s a wallflower, he’ll talk out there. He brings an edge. And the Nets have had problems with Bobby Portis during his previous stops.

Q: Are the Nets vulnerable on the glass against this team?

A: Yeah they are. They’re gonna have their hands full on the glass against this group. And it’s funny: Brook Lopez is the Nets’ all-time leading scorer … don’t think for a moment he won’t be motivated. It didn’t end well in his eyes. He wanted to stay.

Q: The Nets’ defense was a preseason concern. Has it improved?

A: There’s more connectivity on the defensive end, but there were lapses. Comparing to what we saw early in the season to what we see now, much improved, much more competitive defensive team.

Q: What is the key to the series?

A: The key for the Nets is continuing to build on the chemistry that we saw between the Big 3 in Round 1. The regular season there were just flashes of it just based on the limited time together. But against Boston, there were stretches where they simply took over games. Every round is always going to be a serious challenge for them to deal with defensively. Offensively, I don’t know if there’s a team out there that can hold them down for four games in a series.

Giannis Antetokounmpo
Giannis Antetokounmpo
NBAE via Getty Images

Q: Do you expect a seven-game series?

A: I expect a long series. I think the Bucks are better equipped than they were the last two years when they were the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, yet this group, to me, is a more complete team. They mean business.

Q: How big of a loss is Donte DiVincenzo for them?

A: On the defensive end, his versatility, his toughness, he’s been a winner in his career going back to the Villanova days. … I think that’s an under-the-radar hit for them.

Q: Do you have any favorite Brooklyn things?

A: (Laugh) On a personal level, Brooklyn has been a big part of my life. My father grew up in Brooklyn, Borough Park, he went to Erasmus Hall High School. I lived in Queens as a kid, but I would stay in Brooklyn on the weekends with my father’s ex-wife, and my half-sisters. This was in the ’70s. Brooklyn was bustling, and how people spoke to one another (chuckle), and the language, the vibe, all of it is very much entrenched in my brain from my youth. I had no idea when I got the Nets job in 1994, and I moved to the state of New Jersey the following year, that somehow Brooklyn would reenter my life in this manner.

Q: Have you ever ridden the Cyclone?

A: Yes, many times … many Nathan’s hot dogs, many slices of Brooklyn pizza. It was a large part of my life as a kid.

Q: What are your thoughts on Marv Albert retiring?

A: It’s the end of an era. An icon. I don’t believe that I would be in this business if not for him. Watching him, listening to him as a kid, inspired me to want to do this. To think that his career has spanned nearly 60 years of play-by-play at the highest level is hard to wrap your brain around. I thought it was just perfect that he got to do one more game at MSG, and I’m sure there were a lot of emotions for him. We’re seeing the end of one of the greatest broadcast careers in the history of the medium, and he’s affected generations of play-by-play announcers with his work.

Q: What do you think of recent fan behavior?

A: I was thinking early in the season when all of these major highlights were taking place at Barclays Center and I’m making the call and thinking to myself: “There’s nobody else here in attendance to enjoy this. What’s this gonna feel like when the fans make their way back inside arenas?” It’s the lifeblood of the sport. Now, with all of that said, I do think the lines blurred at some point where fans believed paying for a ticket gave them free license to be a moron. And not all fans. Just certain individuals. And that has to end. We’ve gotten to a point where this is really beyond unacceptable. And it’s grabbing the headlines away from what should be the topic of conversation — the games themselves, not the conduct. I do think alcohol plays a role, and it’s this nasty cycle that’s taken place. … It’s just idiotic behavior.

Q: Would you, or have you, considered growing a beard like James Harden’s?

A: (Laugh) I would need a Sharpie to fill in all the blank spots. I’ve attempted, and it’s not a good look for me.

Q: Other than YES sidekick Sarah Kustok, what other celebrities are you expecting at Barclays?

A: (Laugh) The Nets definitely are a hot ticket right now that people want to see the Big 3 in action. You name it, there’ll be professional athletes there, there’ll be entertainers there, there’ll be rappers there, musical stars. … It’s gonna run the gamut.

Q: Final thoughts?

A: This matchup is a tough one. But if you’re gonna win a title, nobody ever said it’s gonna be easy. It’s hard. You’ve gotta have the horses. And they’ve got the horses.

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