This was not what the virologist ordered. Kyrie Irving was out there somewhere, ruled ineligible by his vaccination stand, and surely he saw the Nets team that the rest of the NBA saw on opening night.
Brooklyn looked slow, uninspired and overmatched. It was outclassed by the class of the league, Milwaukee, a franchise that won its first title this summer in half a century, and was rewarded Tuesday night with championship rings, a fresh banner and an opponent that showed no interest in spoiling the party.
The Bucks beat the Nets without Irving just like they beat the Nets without Irving in the playoffs four months ago. Only this time James Harden was healthy and playing on two fully operational wheels. The Nets were going with a legit Big 2 rather than the Big 1.5 they deployed in the conference semis, and yet they offered no resistance. It was, all things considered, a pretty pathetic effort. If the Nets were planning on sending a message to Irving that they were still championship-bound without him, theirs was an epic fail.
They were down 19 points not even nine minutes into the game. Nineteen. Though the Nets cut the deficit to five in the second quarter and to seven at intermission, they never made a serious run at the home team in the second half. If it wasn’t for Patty Mills, a winning bench acquisition who made all seven of his 3-point attempts, this would have been an ungodly mess of a blowout. The 127-104 final was dispiriting enough.
Brooklyn’s superstar numbers looked just fine in the boxscore — Durant finished with 32 points, 11 rebounds and four assists, while Harden went for 20, eight and eight. But that boxscore was a liar, and two fourth-quarter sequences explained why.
Down 10 with the ball, Harden was stripped by Grayson Allen, who then fed Jordan Nwora for a 3-pointer. After the Nets called timeout, Durant drove hard to the goal only to be rejected by Nwora before Allen’s 3 made it a 16-point game.
When stars the magnitude of Durant and Harden are getting schooled by the Allens and Nworas of the world, it’s not going to be a fun plane ride home.
After his team staggered off the Fiserv Forum floor, Steve Nash bemoaned the fact that the Nets were not as sharp or as physical or as organized as they needed to be. They were beaten to almost every loose ball and did nothing to make the Bucks feel uncomfortable on their first night in the role of defending champs.
Nash conceded the obvious, that the Nets lacked cohesion, and cited the new players and their attempt to figure out their roles as the reason why. The Bucks? “They looked the same to me,” Nash said.
Giannis Antetokounmpo was the same destructive force he was in the playoffs, pounding the Nets for 32 points, 14 rebounds, seven assists and one poke of Durant’s eye in 31 minutes. The Bucks ended up with more shots, more 3-pointers, more rebounds, more steals — and fewer turnovers. The field-goal attempt differential (105-84) was the most consequential stat of the night.
“We can’t give a team 20 more shots than us,” Durant said. “Imagine coming into a game and we said, ‘Here, take the ball 20 times on offense before we get an offensive possession.’ Everybody’s going to lose that.”
And so Brooklyn lost it in grand fashion. In postgame interviews, the Nets didn’t look or sound terribly impacted by the fact that the team that had eliminated them in June by the length of Durant’s big toe had just shredded them on national TV. Yes, it’s only one game out of 82, and no, nobody’s going to care about this mid-October clash if the Nets beat the Bucks in the Eastern Conference finals.
But still, the Nets entered the arena as the betting favorite to win it all. They also had every reason to play hungry and to play angry, especially after the pregame ceremony, and instead the Bucks responded like the team that had everything to prove. When it was over and Nash talked about the Nets needing time to jell, his words summoned last season’s reminders that Durant, Harden and Irving spent precious little regular-season time together on the floor. As it turned out, they would spend little postseason time together on the floor too.
“It doesn’t get easier from here,” Harden said Tuesday night, “which is something we’ve got to embrace.”
In the end, the Nets lost more than an opening game in Milwaukee. They lost an opportunity to show everyone that they are better off without Irving and good enough to make those Vegas oddsmakers look smart next summer.
And that should hurt the Nets more than it seemed it did.