This is what playoff basketball looks, sounds — and if you ask either team — feels like.
Bodies colliding. Coaches fired up. A wire-to-wire game that’s decided late in the fourth.
The Nets’ 110-99 loss to the 2021 NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks gave it all. Steve Nash was tossed after a double technical in the third quarter. Kevin Durant suffered a stinger in his shoulder and Ben Simmons winced with back pain — and continued to struggle to find his footing on the offensive end.
But in the end, it was still a game. And in the end, the Nets had a chance to win.
Make no mistake: The Nets would love an undefeated start to their season. They would love for the fruits of what will be a full season’s worth of labor actually reflected in the win column.
They knew, however, they would be off to a tough start — with Luka Doncic’s Dallas Mavericks awaiting on Thursday for the second leg of a back-to-back. They knew the wins wouldn’t rack up early. You didn’t need Nash, Kyrie Irving or Simmons to say things would look ugly before they got pretty.
There continues to be, however, areas the Nets will need to improve on if they’re going to eventually start turning that progress into victories.
DEPTH AT THE FIVE
It’s clear as day that both Nic Claxton and second-year big man Day’Ron Sharpe have improved from where they were last season.
It’s also clear as day that those improvements, quite frankly, aren’t enough.
That’s because other teams are just going to brute force their way into the paint, just like Giannis Antetokounmpo did in the third quarter. After the Nets went on a 35-18 second-quarter run to take a 55-43 lead into halftime, Antetokounmpo responded by taking the Carmelo Anthony-coined ‘bully ball’ to a different level.
Antetokounmpo scored 17 of his 43 points in the third quarter, and he did the same way: either on the low left block, pummeling his way through whichever defender the Nets put on him; or downhill in transition or after a rebound, putting his head and shoulder down and getting to the rim.
The Nets don’t have an answer for that, just like they didn’t have an answer for New Orleans’ Zion Williamson and Jonas Valanciunas; like they didn’t have an answer for Memphis’ Steven Adams and Brandon Clarke; and like they won’t have an answer for the foreseeable future at the top of an Eastern Conference where the teams leading to the Finals will all be bigger and stronger than the Nets as currently constructed.
NBA fixture Jeff Van Gundy said it best during ESPN’s broadcast. Van Gundy was asked specifically if he believed the Nets can contend at a high level with only Claxton and Sharpe playing the five.
“I think they definitely have to explore all opportunities to get a different type of big,” he said.
It’s worth noting Markieff Morris missed his second straight game for personal reasons, and it’s the second time in a row a team all but bullied the Nets to a double-digit loss.
“SHOOT IT BEN”
Those were the actual words Irving screamed after dumping the ball off to Simmons a few feet from the rim, only for Simmons to pause, never look at the rim, and pass to a teammate.
Simmons shot two-of-seven from the field for four points, nine assists, five rebounds, two steals and a block against the Bucks. Defensively, he played maybe his best game of the season. If this is the Simmons the Nets are getting on that end of the ball, sign them up for a full year’s worth.
But two things are clear on the offensive end: One, Simmons is hesitant — even more hesitant than James Harden was last season — to score. And we’re not talking jump shots. We’re talking getting to the rim to dunk or even to the running hook shot he feels he can get off at any time.
Which brings us to the second point: He is clearly still laboring after undergoing a back procedure this offseason. On one play defending Antetokounmpo, he hunched over in clear discomfort, then continued to play through the pain.
It’s admirable, but this has always been a concern: Simmons, only months removed from a microdiscectomy, is now tasked with being the Nets’ best, and toughest defender at all five positions.
And then, the Nets are asking him to be aggressive on offense.
He has to be, because on Wednesday night, the Bucks simply parked Brook Lopez in the paint and dared Simmons to shoot anything outside of five feet. It’s the worst kept secret that he has yet to reclaim the athleticism that allowed him to finish at the rim with authority. Against the Bucks, he missed a wide-open layup, then missed the ensuing tip-in a fraction of a second later.
Which brings us to the viral “Shoot it, Ben!” clip, where Irving dumps the ball off to Simmons a few feet from the basket, and Simmons holds the ball for a second and a half, then looks to pass.
It wasn’t that play that was the issue, but it was a microcosm of where Simmons is in his return after 470 days accumulating rust missing the entire 2021-22 NBA season. He played an excellent defensive game, but on offense, he dribbled the ball up the court, then set a screen for the person he passed to — also known as a dribble hand-off (or DHO) — over and over again.
And if this is where the Nets are, then it’s going to fall, once again, on the shoulders of the superstar scorers this franchise emboldened with the keys to the kingdom. Irving and Durant combined for 60 points on the night, but Irving missed 12 shots and Durant missed 13. Only one other player scored in double figures: Royce O’Neale, who hit four three-pointers in the second quarter and never scored again.
Antetokounmpo finished with 43 points, but the Bucks also outrebounded the Nets by 17. Again, it’s not about the wins and losses — just yet — more so how the Nets look while competing in a season with championship expectations.
They look good, but two glaring improvements clearly need to be made if this is going to be the last team standing at the end of the season.