In many respects, the Nets’ 134-124 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies late Monday night was predictable.
The Grizzlies are considered NBA Finals contenders and brought back one of the best two-way cores in all of basketball, powered by All-NBA lightning rod Ja Morant.
The Nets, on the other hand, have the pieces on paper that read “Eastern Conference Finals contender” but are still looking to build the continuity needed to beat cohesive teams like the one in Memphis.
And between the new-look offense and Ben Simmons finding himself again on the basketball court, it’s going to take some time.
But the Nets’ valiant effort against a quality early-season foe served as an adequate barometer measuring where this team is in its quest for a deep playoff run. The Nets bent, but never broke, and that is an admirable quality in a team that knows there is work ahead.
GLARING SIZE DISPARITY
If there was a game the Nets missed Markieff Morris, this was the one.
Sean Marks signed Morris, known for his toughness league-wide, precisely for matchups against teams that like to use their size and strength to play a more physical brand of basketball against the Nets.
Unfortunately, Morris, for personal reasons, did not travel to Memphis and it is unclear if he will be available for another bruising team in Milwaukee against the Bucks on Wednesday. Without him, the Nets were in foul trouble all night long: Simmons fouled out — on a blunder of a whistle in the fourth quarter — and six other players recorded at least three fouls with the entire starting five in foul trouble.
Between big men Steven Adams and Brandon Clarke, and some stocky wings on Memphis’ perimeter, the Grizzlies were able to use their brute force to create advantages in the paint and on the glass.
But the Nets actually only finished with three fewer rebounds than their opponent all night. It was Kyrie Irving who stepped up and led Brooklyn with eight boards. Adams grabbed 13 rebounds and Morant added eight more, but no other Grizzly grabbed more than four.
Without Morris on the floor, it isn’t fair to judge whether or not the Nets could have used another big man with veteran experience in free agency this offseason. Nic Claxton finished with 16 points, seven rebounds and two blocks. Second-year big man Day’Ron Sharpe had some good moments, but also finished the game with five fouls.
Just like their come-from-behind win over the Toronto Raptors on Friday, the Nets showed the kind of resilience that could be their calling card for a deep playoff run. It’s been a trait of theirs ever since they’ve had both Durant and Irving on the court together: With those two on the floor, there’s never a lead too large for these Nets to overcome.
And overcome they did to turn a 15-point deficit into a winnable game down the stretch. Had it not been for the Nets falling asleep on defense against the deep three — both Morant and Desmond Bane hit momentum-shifting 30-footers while their defender was asleep — the Nets may have been able to pull off a second straight comeback win.
That’s because Durant and Irving’s individual scoring greatness know no bounds. The two scored 37 apiece with only 16 missed shots between the two of them. It was one mind boggling shot after another, with the two stars putting the weight of an entire offense, at times, on their lone shoulders.
SIMMONS NOT READY
And Simmons still has yet to find his footing with now three regular season games under his belt.
Simmons finished with seven points, eight assists, five turnovers and three rebounds, at times looking like a traffic cone while people moved around him. It is evident he is still working to find his rhythm and recoup what’s left of what was once an All-NBA player on both ends of the floor before sitting out an entire season because of mental health issues and an offseason back surgery.
And it’s also evident the Nets are still working to find their offensive pop when he’s in the game. Without him, only Durant, Irving and Claxton scored in double figures.
Maybe the Nets could use their two injured scorers — Seth Curry (ankle) and T.J. Warren (foot) — a little bit more than meets the eye.