It happened with 4:27 to go in the fourth quarter of the Nets’ convincing 118-100 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks on Friday night.
Kevin Durant walked to the bench and slapped hands with Jacque Vaughn. Kyrie Irving bumped chests with Royce O’Neale. The entire Nets bench rose to its feet and cheered the starters.
While the Bucks walked to the bench with their heads hanging, with their head coach drawing up plays that ultimately wouldn’t impact the outcome.
This is how you make a statement.
The Nets entered the Christmas weekend with one goal: to further extend their winning streak by beating the toughest opponent they’ve played in nearly three weeks.
It wasn’t even close. The Nets do, indeed, belong with the NBA’s cream of the crop after disposing of the 2021 NBA champions on Friday night.
It was an 11-degree day that featured intermittent rainstorms turned slippery ice in the streets of New York City, but the Nets were red-hot in their victory over Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Milwaukee Bucks the night before Christmas Eve. They hit 14 threes on 32 attempts and recorded 30 assists on 46 made field goals.
Brooklyn has now won eight in a row, 12 of its last 13, and boasts an 19-7 record since Jacque Vaughn succeeded Steve Nash as head coach seven games into the season.
It took a coaching master class from Vaughn, some timely shot-making and elite defense from Ben Simmons on Antetokounmpo to deliver the Nets their first signature victory over a championship-contending opponent as a (mostly) fully healthy group this season.
The Bucks were without All-Star forward Khris Middleton, who continues to miss time with a knee injury. Nets sharpshooter Joe Harris was also a late scratch after reporting soreness in his left knee shortly before tip-off.
And the Nets were also largely without Kyrie Irving, who went the first three quarters with only one made field goal under the defensive pressure of lockdown Bucks guard Jrue Holiday and ex-Nets hound Jevon Carter.
Simmons played his best game since returning from a calf injury that cost him four straight games. He tallied 12 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists on the night. Most importantly, Simmons put pressure on Antetokounmpo at the half court line. He made life as difficult for the two-time league Most Valuable Player of the Year as any player who has suited up in a Nets jersey since the Bucks drafted The Greek Freak in 2013.
Simmons also showed a level of offensive aggression that had previously been lacking after an offseason that included a procedure on his lower back. On one fastbreak possession, Simmons went with a between the legs escape dribble into a one-handed running hook shot. On another possession, he drove right up Antetokounmpo’s chest to finish at the rim.
Simmons’ performance was promising, both in his fit pushing the ball in transition to find open shooters and in his strength guarding Antetokounmpo, who routine bullies opponents on his way to 30-plus-point triple doubles.
Antetokounmpo finished with 26 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists, but there were minimal head-scratching defensive possessions. Where the Bucks often went for the cross-match of Antetokounmpo on Irving, the Nets were only a dribble away from sending help.
The victory over a Bucks team that has had largely the same core for the last five years is proof the Nets are en route to building a similar level of continuity in Brooklyn.
Kevin Durant finished with 24 points, six rebounds and five assists, shooting 9-of-17 from the field. Irving shook off a cold first three quarters to finish with 18 points, nine rebounds and six assists. Six different Nets scored in double figures, with O’Neale torching the Bucks for 17 points on five-of-eight shooting from three-point range.
And the Nets proved they can hang with the NBA’s elite — something they’ll have another chance to affirm with the looming Dec. 26 matchup against Donovan Mitchell and the Cleveland Cavaliers.