Without James Harden, the Nets looked comfortable being uncomfortable in win over Bucks

Injuries have been a main character throughout this NBA season, so it would be unrealistic for it to allow the most anticipated playoff series to unfold uninterrupted.

But for some reason, James Harden coming up lame in the first minute seemed to affect the Milwaukee Bucks more than the Brooklyn Nets. Perhaps it’s because the Nets have dealt with uneven turf all season, yet still find themselves discovering new elements, morphing into a more dogged bunch.

Harden’s nonemotional reaction to re-injuring his right hamstring almost gives the appearance he’ll be more spectator than participant in the near future, particularly this series. Nets coach Steve Nash and the headliners put on a brave face but the concern was evident. Without knowing the results of Harden’s in-game MRI, Nash used the word “heartbreaking.”

“I don’t know if he’s playing next game,” Nash said. “I mean, this guy was so ready and excited to play tonight. And you know, the preparation he puts in, you know, how much he cares about the game, how much he cares about his team. So you never want to see that."

But the Nets looked so comfortable being uncomfortable, they played a mature game in the series opener, likely sending shock waves across the way to a Bucks team that felt pretty confident going in.

Perhaps the Bucks were a little too satisfied with conquering the Miami Heat, the ease of the first round left them unprepared for the extra gear required to beat a better team. They looked rushed and while they missed plenty of open shots, they didn’t look prepared, either.

Someone should remind them Kevin Durant is on the other side and he can’t be defended like any other player — not in this league, yesteryear, or even the future. The game’s best player when healthy misses shots because of himself, not the opponent, and Kyrie Irving is as dazzling as any perimeter player remaining in the postseason.

James Harden #13 of the Brooklyn Nets tries to passover Brook Lopez #11 of the Milwaukee Bucks during the first quarter against the Milwaukee Bucks during Game One of the Eastern Conference second round series at Barclays Center on June 05, 2021 in New York City. 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 Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)
James Harden didn't last one minute for Brooklyn in Game 1 vs. Milwaukee. (Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

Durant scored an easy 29 and Irving took up some playmaking slack, adding eight assists to his 25 points.

The final score, 115-107, displayed an eight-point spread, but it felt like a 20-point thrashing, with the Nets adjusting emotionally and strategically on the fly.

“We've had a lot thrown at us this year,” Nash said. “So we were in a sense, well-trained for this event.”

They’ll miss Harden’s playmaking, as he was the glue that facilitated shots for the likes of Joe Harris and Jeff Green, but since when has the strategy of “more shots for Kevin Durant” ever yielded anything but nightmares for the opposition?

The belief was the Bucks, hardened from playoff failures the last two years, would be motivated by heartbreak and ready to display versatility from the deep roster they employ. But just because the Nets are instant grits en masse doesn’t exclude the individuals from their own playoff histories. Durant and Irving are made men on the big stage, champions.

But they also shed tears due to their bodies failing them when it mattered most. Durant’s masterful play obscures the Achilles injury two years ago that rocked the basketball world and threatened his future. Irving had to watch the 2015 Finals after barely getting a morsel of the action, and bitterly, one can expect, had to swallow watching his Boston Celtics fall to his former team in Cleveland in the 2018 conference finals.

Nash is no longer an all-world point guard, the instances of coming up short to the likes of Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant must still burn. He may lack coaching experience, but he doesn’t lack the disappointment that often fuels the most competitive fellows on the sideline.

A belief was the Nets would cower at the first sign of adversity, but this group is steeled in unique ways.

“This is a life lesson. You focus on what you can control,” Durant said. “You know, that's one of those things that you can't control, like somebody gets injured or what can happen in the future. I mean, we looking around the league and seeing what's happening.”

Looking around the league, the Bucks looked mature, confident and complete. But shooting 20% from three and wasting a pretty efficient performance from Giannis Antetokounmpo (34 points on 16-for-24 shooting) doesn’t inspire much confidence for Game 2 and beyond.

Jrue Holiday looked lost at times, no different than the underwhelming performances of his predecessor Eric Bledsoe. Khris Middleton couldn’t locate his shot, and the entire roster was routinely beat on cuts to the basket.

They were rushed and still managed to be a step slow.

They should be more desperate, more hungry than their counterparts but a team that got tough was outmuscled by the likes of Blake Griffin, who routinely dove on the floor for loose balls and flew for dunks that shouldn’t be unexpected anymore.

Blake Griffin #2 of the Brooklyn Nets shoots over Brook Lopez #11 of the Milwaukee Bucks during the fourth quarter during Game One of the Eastern Conference second round series at Barclays Center on June 05, 2021 in New York City. 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 Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)
Blake Griffin had 18 points and 13 rebounds for Brooklyn. (Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

One of the best shooting teams was outshot by the same Blake Griffin, who jumped in the hot tub time machine and got chocolate wasted from three by making four, one fewer than teammate Joe Harris, two fewer triples than the team in green.

Griffin received a standing ovation from his new home crowd, a welcome sight after being in the medical abyss the last few years, having an off and on relationship with good health — there it is again — more heartbreak bonding these individuals.

“For two years, I didn't hear much positivity. And, you know, probably rightfully so,” said Griffin, who finished with 18 points and 14 rebounds. “But it's pretty crazy how quickly you know, it happens.”

Series can turn on a trifle, as evidenced by the fate of the Lakers, the back-and-forth Clippers-Mavericks tilt and Saturday’s Game 1.

We haven’t seen the Bucks adjust in real-time, while time has never been settled for the Nets. The Bucks, historically, seem wholly dependent on Plan A, while we’ve never seen the Nets’ version of it and may probably never see it this season with Harden’s injury — yet it still might be enough to send Milwaukee home.

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