It was hard to ignore the Kyrie Irving-sized elephant who wasn’t in the room as the Nets opened the season by being pummeled, 127-104, by the Milwaukee Bucks on Tuesday night.
It was only one game, but the Nets missed Irving in their starting XI. They missed him in attack. They missed him as they struggled to establish rotations that kept a star on the ground at all times as they tried unsuccessfully to keep pace with the Bucks.
And the Nets will likely continue to miss him for the foreseeable future. They have banned him from games and training because of his refusal to accept a coronavirus vaccine, and he has not publicly indicated that he plans to change his mind. This position made Irving ineligible to play home games in Brooklyn, which led to the Nets temporarily banning him from playing and forcing coach Steve Nash and other team stars Kevin Durant and James Harden. , to review a plan on the fly. .
After at least one night, Durant was preaching patience.
“It’s one in 82 game,” he said after recording 32 points and 11 rebounds. “Every team feels that. “
The Bucks played like a team that knew each other, mostly starting the same players who formed the core of the roster that led the franchise to a championship last season. Three of Milwaukee’s best players – Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez – are in their fourth year of starting together. The Nets, meanwhile, started off with a lineup of players who continue to familiarize themselves with, and almost anyone who received significant minutes off the bench was a new addition this season.
“They have a certain continuity that a lot of teams don’t have,” Durant said knowingly of the Bucks.
The lineup the Nets expected to miss was supposed to feature a row of attacking murderers, a host of options that would allow Nash more flexibility in handling Durant and Harden’s minutes. Instead, with Irving out, the Nets kept either Durant or Harden on the ground anytime Tuesday to generate an attack.
The Nets only seemed sporadically fluid, which surely would have been helped by the skills of an exceptional point guard and shooter like Irving.
Without him, the Nets’ mantra afterward was that the loss to the Bucks was one of many games, and cohesion will come. The Nets must build the chemistry almost from scratch, while Milwaukee’s mission is to maintain the already developed core.
“We know where we need to be,” said Harden, who finished with 20 points, 8 rebounds and 8 assists. “We will get to this level. This is the first game of a new season.
He added: “Honestly, we are excited about this season. It might have made us even more excited just because we know there’s a level we need to reach that we’re not even close to. “
A game or not: Last season, the Nets did not lose 20 points or more until the 45th game.
“One thing that disappointed me more than anything was the loose balls and shake games – they all seemed to win them,” Nash said of the Bucks. “As we try to find each other, explore different rotations and find that cohesion, we have to make things more uncomfortable for people. “
There was one bright spot for the Nets on Tuesday: Patty Mills, who came off the bench and scored seven 3-pointers. Mills, 33, joined the Nets in free agency from the San Antonio Spurs and was a reserve for most of his 13-year career. He’s nowhere near as talented as Irving, but showed on Tuesday that he can take over some of the play-making if needed.
“We’re going to need this from Patty,” Durant said. “We talked the other day about his aggression. To be a goalscorer. Being a playmaker. Tonight was no different. He came out and gave us great energy to start.
The Nets’ goal is to be so good that the basketball world can stop focusing on Irving’s vaccine status. On Tuesday, however, Irving remained an important talking point.
Before the game, NBA commissioner Adam Silver was asked on TNT what message he would send to Irving.
“I would tell him to get the vaccine, first and foremost for him and his family,” Silver said. “Then for his teammates and his community and also for the league to which I know he cares so much.
“I understand it’s not just Kyrie. There are people in this country who disagree with the idea of getting the vaccine, but at least from what I understand, science is firmly on the side of getting the vaccine. “
It’s likely – given the talent of the Nets – that Tuesday night’s performance will end up being a blip on the radar. After all, in 2019 the Los Angeles Lakers lost by double digits on opening night to their crosstown rivals, the Clippers, and ended up winning the championship with a roster of mostly new players.
But if it’s more than a caveat, it’s reality for the Nets: Irving’s absence will weigh on the team. If there are more games like Tuesday to come, they’ll have to fill that Irving-sized hole in the point guard.