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Nets open season with loss to Bucks on ring night in Milwaukee, 127-104

Brooklyn Nets v Milwaukee Bucks

It was shades of the Nets play in Milwaukee last season. Just when it seemed like Brooklyn was getting close, the Bucks had all the answers.

Brooklyn fell to Milwaukee, 127-104, Tuesday night to open the regular season. Before the game, the Bucks were presented their 2020-21 NBA championship rings and unveiled their championship banner.

It was also the first game that the Nets played without Kyrie Irving, who’s banned from New York venues under the city’s vaccination protocols. Although Irving could’ve played in Milwaukee, the Nets chose last week to keep him inactive for both home and away contests until he can be a “full participant.”

No reporter asked Steve Nash or the Nets players if they believed the outcome would have been different if Irving was with the team and none volunteered their thoughts.

“It wasn’t good obviously. I thought we weren’t as sharp as we needed to be. Probably not as physical as we needed to be. As organized as we needed to be. At the same time, the one thing that disappointed me more than anything was loose balls, hustle plays. They seemed to win them all,” said Nash on the loss.

The Nets struggled to gain an edge throughout the contest. Brooklyn’s perimeter defense and defense as a whole were evident in the loss leading to a nearly game-long double-digit deficit.

Kevin Durant manned the offensive scoring load for Brooklyn. He finished with a game-high 32 points on 13-of-25 from the field and 3-of-7 from three to go along with 11 rebounds and four assists in 30 minutes. James Harden followed with 20 points on 6-of-16 from the field and 4-of-8 from three in 31 minutes. Harden contributed eight assists and eight rebounds. After the game, the Nets superstar took the loss as a motivating factor for the team to acknowledge what level they need to get to.

“We played against a very good team. They’ve been together for a few years now. They’re the defending champions, so we know what level we got to get to. We will get to that level,” Harden said. “It’s game 1 of a new season. We’re excited about the season. This might have made us more exciting because there’s a level that we got to get to that we’re not even close (to). It is what it is.”

Brooklyn Nets v Milwaukee Bucks Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Nic Claxton — who struggled with conditioning in the loss — recorded 12 points on 6-of-9 shooting from the field in 24 minutes as a starter.

Beyond the Nets' downsized “Big Two,” Patty Mills looked like a great fit in his game with the Nets. Mills had a historic performance off the bench, going a perfect 7-of-7 from three to finish with 21 points in 29 minutes. The veteran guard tied the franchise record for most threes off the bench and a league record for most threes made in a debut with a new team.

“His shooting was exceptional but more so just the energy, the IQ, the experience and he plays intelligently. He’s able to complement his teammates so well. He just has that experience,” said Nash on Mills after the defeat. “We know the shooting and skill but his attitude, competitiveness, the pace, the way he’s able to complement his teammates is exceptional as well.”

Despite the Nets' defensive struggles throughout the contest, they shot well, finishing with 44.0 percent from the field and 53.1 percent from three. They shot poorly from the charity strike — 13-of-23 — and coughed up 13 turnovers, resulting in 22 points for Milwaukee.

The first quarter was a poor one defensively for Brooklyn. The Bucks opened the contest nursing a 15-8 advantage, leaving Nash to call a timeout early. It continued to get ugly. Brooklyn struggled to keep Giannis Antetokounmpo off the boards. The Finals MVP finished with a monstrous game of 32 points, same as KD, as well as 14 rebounds and seven assists in 31 minutes. The Nets perimeter defense seemed confused, allowing the Bucks to hit 7-of-15 from three in the first frame.

With Mills, things could have gone much worse. Milwaukee put up 37 points with no turnovers in the first. Mills gave Brooklyn a must-needed boost off the bench — nine points on 3-of-3 from three in seven minutes — to help trim the deficit to 12.

The Nets opened the second on a 22-11 run carried over from the first quarter, behind Harden’s 3-point shooting. Milwaukee, however, continued to put their foot on the gas and exploited the Nets' perimeter defense to balloon their advantage to 19 points midway through the second.

Brooklyn’s offense caught a rhythm late, trimming the deficit to seven points by half. The Nets concluded the first half shooting nearly 65 percent from the field in the second frame, behind Durant (11 points), Harden (15 points) and Mills (15 points off the bench). Mills, who was the only player off the Nets bench to score in the first half, became the first Net since Mirza Teletovic (six threes) to record five or more triples off the bench.

Brooklyn Nets v Milwaukee Bucks

After a fast-paced first half, the pace slowed down in the third. While the fouls were piling up on both sides, Brooklyn failed to capitalize on free throws (9-of-17) and find a collective rhythm offensively. It was Durant who kept the Nets in the contest with 13 points in the frame. Meanwhile, Milwaukee had answers for Brooklyn’s buckets, growing their lead back up 13, and maintained the double-digit advantage till the buzzer sounded (97-85).

The Nets couldn’t overcome the double-digit deficit in the fourth quarter. Nash and the Nets inserted the deep bench unit — Cam Thomas, Jevon Carter, DeAndre’ Bembry, James Johnson and surprisingly Bruce Brown — with 3:45 remaining to finish out the contest.

Film Room

It was the same story as last year’s playoff series: The Nets lost the Milwaukee Bucks in the margins. The rebounding discrepancy (Bucks were +10 in this statistic) continued to be a problem. When the Nets turned the ball over 12 times (which isn’t necessarily bad) or missed a shot, the Bucks capitalized quickly with ferocious transition attacks to the tune of 22 points. Heck, even in a game when the Nets made more than 50% of their threes, Brooklyn lost by 23 points — 21 fewer shots will do that to you.

In short, Milwaukee’s tenacity embodied its superstar’s efforts, Giannis Antetokounmpo, who filled the box score and looked as unguardable as he did a season ago against the Nets. Even if he misfired on a shot near the rim, the Greek Freak powered his way through a sea of helpless Nets bodies to clean up his miss.

“We just couldn’t get over to hump because they have more possessions than us,” said Kevin Durant about Brooklyn’s woeful rebounding. “They created more offense for themselves with offensive rebounds — they had like five of their own possession.”

Giannis also flashed his brand new midrange jump shot, which appears remolded to some degree, retrofitted with a smoother release. Hitting shots from the midrange kept the Nets on their toes and forced Brooklyn to converge its defense onto the reinging Finals MVP, which Blake Griffin does in the clip below. That allowed for passing windows to open shooters, which Antetokounmpo happily accepted. His passing, by the way, is another thing that has improved significantly since the early portions of last year’s series between these two teams.

All of this was compounded by Brooklyn’s aforementioned turnover problems, many of which stemmed from the James Harden and Nicolas Claxton two-man game, which appeared woefully rusty. Harden wasn’t particularly accurate with his passes against Milwaukee; Claxton’s hands and timing seemed off, combined with his stamina that still leaves a lot to be desired.

In the clip below, Joe Harris tries to thread a bounce pass to Claxton that bounces off the third-year center’s legs. To make matters worse, Claxton fails to get back on defense, leading to an open Bucks three with the 4-on-5 advantage.

“Yeah I mean, it is one game of 82 of them,” said Kevin Durant about the loss. He’s right, and the Nets have a whole lot of work to do in the interim.

TNT Debate on Kyrie Irving

While there were no questions about Kyrie Irving in the post-game availability, the TNT crew got into the issue before the game, with Kenny Smith offering his respect for Irving’s position. Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal were having none of it...

Meanwhile, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar once again took to the Internet to discuss Irving. He criticized those vaccinated players who treat the Nets guard’s position with “kid gloves.”

This tepid kid-glove handling from players who have all gotten the vaccine appears more an attempt to preserve a congenial working relationship than true support for making asinine choices. They’re like the Real Housewives pretending they’ve got Erika Jayne’s back in her legal woes because they still have to go to dinner parties with her. Though they don’t mean to, by not strongly condemning Irving, they are signaling passive support, which is as damaging as joining him on the bench as a vaccine-denier.

There are serious consequences to tiptoeing around what is clearly a threat to many people’s lives, especially Black lives? The last time I wrote about this topic a couple weeks ago, we had just hit 700,000 deaths from COVID-19 in the U.S. As I write this today, we’ve reached 723,754 deaths. By the time you read this, a few thousand more will have died.

On Monday, Joe Tsai spoke of his decision to keep Irving off court at the Milken Institute’s Global Conference on Digital Transformation of Sports. Asked about what happens when social media casts a negative shadow on sports, like Irving’s situation, what does an owner do?

“It’s a great question. If I knew the answer...” he started with a smile before turning serious, even stern.

“This season we have unfinished business. We all know how last season ended. We feel like our collective goal is to go for a championship this season. I respect individual choice. But when individual action is not consistent with the collective goal, the team has to move on. And that’s what we’ve done.

“For me, as the owner, its the only fair thing to do for our fans, our players, our coaching staff, everyone involved in our organization. It’s the only fair thing to do.”

James Harden: ‘I got a lot to prove for myself’

Less than 24 hours after James Harden declined to sign an extension with Brooklyn, he told the media that fans should not worry about his commitment. He loves it here and his main focus heading into the season will be his health and proving himself along the way.

“I’ve just been focused on getting healthy. Getting healthy, getting my body right and preparing for a great season. The contract and the money is going to be there. I’m not planning on leaving this organization and the situation that we have,” Harden said on not signing an extension Monday night. “My focus is to focus on the season and winning a championship. The contract and all that stuff will play itself out as it should.”

The Nets superstar also praised ownership and the front office about the level of communication and making him feel at home.

“Last year as a whirlwind for me individually as far as my health and playing. This year, I want to come back and show I am one of those ones and I’m one of them guys. I got a lot to prove for myself. That’s all I’m worried about and focused on,” Harden said. “I love it here. Myself, Joe [Tsai], Clara [Tsai], Sean [Marks], the front office, Steve and from top to bottom, the communication has been unbelievable and amazing. I feel at home so. I just want to focus on this year and that’s it.”

Steve Nash, James Harden, Kevin Durant and Julius Erving named to NBA 75th anniversary team

The NBA released the names of the first 25 players from the league’s 75th Anniversary Team Tuesday night. Of the 25 players revealed, the Nets had four, both past and present: Kevin Durant, James Harden, Steve Nash and Julius Erving.

The league will unveil the next 25 players Wednesday and the final 25 players on Thursday. The Nets are likely to have several more players named, including Jason Kidd and Vince Carter ... at the least.

Cassidy Hubbarth of ESPN caught up with KD before the game...

Post-game, Harden had his own reaction...

As Sponge Bob might say...

Welcome back, Sponge.

What’s next

The Nets will travel to Philadelphia to play the Sixers on Friday. The game is scheduled to tip at 7:30 PM ET.

For a different perspective on the regular-season opener, check out Brew Hoop — our sister site covering the Bucks.