After dreadful opening night performance, Nets feels neither exciting nor new

NEW YORK — You’d expect a team featuring Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Ben Simmons — three players who’ve made All-NBA teams over the past two seasons — to demand strong, stirring adjectives to describe their play, their swagger, the way they lord over the court. Words like commanding. Dominant. Confident.

Here, instead, are some of the words those three stars and head coach Steve Nash used to describe the Nets’ opening-night outing against the visiting Pelicans:

Rattled. Clunky. Tense. Antsy.

Those weren’t the harshest words they could’ve chosen to depict the largely listless performance that the Nets turned in Wednesday, in a game that saw a healthy Zion Williamson lead the Pelicans into Barclays Center and batter Brooklyn from pillar to post, from the opening tip to the final buzzer of a 130-108 blowout. After the beatdown, Nash shared some choice words of his own.

“My message to the guys was just [about] raising our standards of competition, you know?” Nash told reporters after the game. “We gave up 21 offensive rebounds. We turned the ball over. We let them in our paint way too often. Just things that we’ve been preparing for, we’ve been working on, and we just didn’t execute. It’s a process for our group. But at the same time, there’s competitive standards, and an opportunity for us to grow every night here. But we’ve got to compete at a high level.”

Irving echoed his coach’s sentiments following a disappointing 6-of-19 shooting night.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - OCTOBER 19: Kevin Durant #7 of the Brooklyn Nets dribbles as Brandon Ingram #14 of the New Orleans Pelicans defends during the second half at Barclays Center on October 19, 2022 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. The Pelicans won 130-108. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

“This is going to be a familiar theme throughout the year, and that’s to consistently play with a competitive spirit without us talking about it all the time,” Irving said. “I don’t want to sit in this seat after every game saying, ‘We should have done this, we should have done that.’ This is a grown man’s league, and the most physical team wins.”

It’s not exactly shocking that New Orleans was the more physical team on Wednesday. The Pelicans’ frontcourt features Williamson, a 285-pound rocket-fueled minivan, to go with all 6-foot-11 and 265 pounds of Jonas Valanciunas — a pair of bruisers eminently capable of bulldozing their way to the basket even against the league’s burlier opponents. The Nets countered with comparative swizzle sticks Durant, Simmons, and Nic Claxton, all of whom give up a lot of weight and strength to New Orleans’ road graders. The Pelicans pressed that interior advantage, rebounding a whopping 42.9 percent of their missed shots outside of garbage time against Brooklyn, according to Cleaning the Glass — a full 10 percentage points higher than the mark with which Memphis led the league last season.

It was kind of shocking, though, just how much more prepared for battle the visitors seemed than the hosts, who mustered only two field goals in the game’s first eight minutes and committed turnovers on seven of their first 12 possessions. Sometimes, the Nets couldn’t hold onto the ball in traffic; others, they just sort of threw it around the court:

Durant had three of the cough-ups, plus an early-shot-clock 3-point attempt that he later termed “terrible,” telling reporters that he “set a bad precedent for the rest of the night.” The turnovers helped fuel New Orleans’ transition attack, allowing the Pels to explode out of the gates with a 20-4 run and take a 32-14 lead into the second quarter. Brooklyn cleaned some things up in the second, limiting the turnovers, getting Durant’s jumper online, and briefly seizing some momentum when Durant snuffed out a two-handed dunk attempt by gangly dopplegänger Brandon Ingram at the summit, and clawing back to within eight at halftime.

That was as close as the Nets would get, though: More sloppy play from Brooklyn, plus more board-crashing and some timely 3-point shooting by the Pelicans, combined for a 21-6 jolt that all but ended the game midway through the third quarter. Brooklyn’s All-NBA troika watched the game from the bench: Simmons after fouling out with only four points and nine minutes still to go, and Durant and Irving after Nash pulled them with 4:30 to go and the Nets down 19.

The extended garbage time marked an ignominious end to what was supposed to serve as the grand re-introduction of a true-blue championship contender. This was supposed to be a fresh start after not only a summer full of discord, but nearly a year of uncertainty, dating back to Irving’s vaccination saga, the souring of the partnership with James Harden, the mega-trade with Philadelphia that brought Simmons to Brooklyn, and the months of questions surrounding Simmons’ reported bouts with physical and mental health issues. Instead, the Nets got smashed, suggesting that their new beginnings also place them a very long way from being the finished product they hope to be.

“We felt new,” Nash told reporters after the game. “It felt like we were gaining some rhythm the last two preseason games, but tonight, it felt new — less in-common experiences. It was just a totally different game and level for our group, that we’ve never played in a real NBA game together, and it kind of exposed us a little bit to how fresh this is.”

While the personnel groupings were fresh, though, what Brooklyn put on the court actually felt somewhat familiar: The new-look Nets with Simmons in tow looked an awful lot like the often-disjoined Nets team we saw swept out of the first round last postseason.

The offense remains heavily reliant on Durant (who shook off his early shakiness to finish with a game-high 32 points) making tough shots over outstretched hands. If Irving is not making a more concerted effort to get Brooklyn into a wider variety of actions that keep the ball moving, the offense can devolve into isolations and simple middle pick-and-rolls that don’t necessarily bend a defense. And if Irving isn't able to consistently generate separation from his defenders — Herbert Jones and Jose Alvarado deserve a lot of credit for corralling him Wednesday — then the Nets’ lack of other consistent sources of shot creation can come back to bite them.

“When Kev’s got it going like that, we’ve got to help him,” Irving said. “We don’t want to rely on him so much so early. We know he’s one of the greatest ever, but as a team, we’ve got to support him.”

Even with Simmons and new arrival Royce O’Neale in tow, Brooklyn still struggled to contain perimeter scorers, with Ingram pouring in a breezy 28 on 10-for-17 shooting with five assists, and C.J. McCollum adding 21 and six dimes. The Nets lack the heft to bang with big bodies on the interior, as Zion ran roughshod en route to 22 points in the paint, while Valanciunas chipped in 15 points and 13 rebounds. And when Brooklyn’s point-of-attack defenders can’t keep opponents out of the paint, the Nets begin giving up the whole store — straight-line drives, offensive boards, kickouts to waiting shooters, swing-swing sequences that lead to wide-open threes, the works. New Orleans scored a scorching 128.7 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions on Wednesday — not far off the torrid offensive efficiency the Celtics managed as they sliced and diced the 76ers on opening night.

There are caveats, explanations and reasons not to panic. (“We’ve got 81 more of these,” Durant said. “It’s about just bouncing back, coming back to work tomorrow, and figuring it out.”) Maybe we’ll look back before too long and see that this Pelicans team is really freaking good, and that getting smacked around by them isn’t the scarlet letter that it might have seemed on opening night. Maybe a Brooklyn offense that often seemed stilted and devoid of rhythm will look more fluid and potent when sharpshooters Seth Curry and Joe Harris return from their respective injuries.

Maybe we can chalk Simmons’ early foul trouble, the fact that he took only three shots and missed both of his free throws, the images of him getting pulverized by Zion, and him playing a whisper-quiet 23 minutes up to the need to knock off the rust in his first real game in 16 months. Or, failing that, to sheer exuberance.

“I think I was too excited, honestly,” Simmons told reporters.

Excited may well be an adjective we come to associate with these Nets — with Durant’s imperial scoring, with Irving’s magical ball-handling and with Simmons’ anticipated return to rumbling fast-break dunks and Defensive Player of the Year-caliber clamping. Not yet, though. A Brooklyn team that can’t get stops and that lives and dies on KD’s toughest shots, feels neither exciting nor new, and it bears the burden of proving that its purported bold future is something more than just the past with a new coat of paint.

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