On Wednesday night, the Brooklyn Nets looked like world-beaters. Two days later, you wondered if they were still dealing with a socially-distanced New Year’s Eve hangover.
Kevin Durant showed up on Friday night, scoring 28 points to go along with eight rebounds and four assists. But the rest of the team was MIA. Kyrie Irving shot 6-for-21 from the field, and 2-for-11 from 3-point range. There would be no fourth-quarter pep talk and turnaround this time. Caris LeVert scored eight points. Collectively, the Nets missed 90 points worth of triples. Spencer Dinwiddie’s absence – which will presumably extend the whole season – was certainly felt.
Still, the Nets aren’t going to win many games with their defense. So often times, when their offense goes into the tank, they’re going to lose, and the Atlanta Hawks took it to Brooklyn in a 114-96 beatdown at Barclays Center. A pitiful first-half performance would’ve brought the first boos of the KD-Kyrie era, but unfortunately the building was still empty due to the pandemic.
Trae Young needed 21 shots to get 21 points, but Atlanta’s deep depth picked up its star on the rare night he looked human. Clint Capela, acquired with Brooklyn’s pick from the deal that allowed the Nets to complete their stunning free-agency sweep in the summer of 2019, dominated DeAndre Jordan and Jarrett Allen inside, posting a double-double. John Collins also had his way, embarrassing Brooklyn with a pair of emphatic hammer dunks en route to another 20-point output. Overall, the Hawks drained 16 3-pointers.
The Nets are 3-3, 3-2 when their superstar duo plays. Durant has looked as though he never had Achilles surgery. That’s the most important piece to the puzzle, the biggest reason to believe that this team can go far. And with their talent, the Nets probably won’t have many shooting nights as bad as this one.
Still, their defense remains an issue. The Nets dropped from No. 1 to No. 12 in defensive efficiency after their last two games, according to ESPN.
Steve Nash’s team looked out of sync on that end of the floor from start to finish, its communication and effort lacking. Jeff Green told his teammates as much after the game, according to local beat reporters. Brooklyn could never gain any momentum, mostly because it couldn’t string stops together. Defensive rebounding and second-chance points continue to be a problem. Nash and Jacque Vaughn have their work cut out for them.
Sean Marks will also have a decision to make.
Irving said last season the team was still “a piece or two away” even with Durant coming back from injury. Defense and physicality were question marks going into this season, and that hasn’t changed. The answers also probably aren’t on the roster. It’s why KD’s offseason recruitment of Serge Ibaka was so intriguing, even it was only a remote possibility given the salary restrictions on what the Nets could offer.
James Harden remains the big prize on paper — that potential third superstar capable of scoring 50 or more on any given night — yet it’s also worth noting that back in September 2019, Durant named fellow Texas product PJ Tucker as the toughest 1-on-1 defender in the NBA.
Whether the Nets could meet the Rockets’ potential ask on just the 35-year-old Tucker — if he’s ever made available via trade — is unclear. Still, the veteran fits the type of player they lack, and his future in Houston — like Harden’s — is uncertain. Two weeks ago, reports surfaced that Tucker and the Rockets were having extension talks, though nothing was believed to be imminent. The less banging inside for Durant, the better. Plus, every time he falls to the ground — and that seemed to happen a lot on Friday night — everyone holds their collective breath.
Brooklyn could also use more defense on the wing. Bruce Brown was brought in via trade, but his lack of playing time tells you all you need to know about how the Nets view him — apparently as an offensive liability. The team is still in the early stages of trying to figure it out, with Nash continuing to tinker with his rotations. He’s decided to keep his timeouts in his pocket early on, so his team can play through mistakes.
There’s no reason to overreact to one loss – especially to a team as good as Atlanta appears to be. The Hawks adjusted after allowing 145 points. They also had their own injury issues, overcoming the absences of Danilo Gallinari and Rajon Rondo. They played with confidence, and it showed on the scoreboard.
Even so, the Nets have to fix their defensive problems – or at least become more competent on that end. In the short-term, their best solution is simply to hit shots. In the long-term, Sean Marks will have a decision to make.