It was the battle of the first and second teams in the Eastern Conference. A Conference Finals preview? Not quite. And the only reason being if both teams were to end up fighting for who comes out of the East, they would need to be fully healthy. But despite the Brooklyn Nets playing their first game minus Kevin Durant due to an MCL sprain and the Boston Celtics running without Jaylen Brown after his 41-point night against the New Orleans Pelicans, the game did not fail to live up to its expectations.
The Nets have been spectacular as of late, but we all knew Durant’s month-long absence would be a problem. To be fair, the Celtics are the number-one team in the East for a reason. But the difference having Durant would have made for the Nets is undeniable. The Nets looked like they were holding off well for most of the game, but the Celtics got their biggest lead in the fourth and kept their feet on the gas. The Nets are now 0-1 without Durant for this stretch, and here are some takeaways.
Just filling the gap is not enough.
Who will make up the thirty or so points that Durant scores on a nightly basis? That is the first puzzle the Nets had to solve. Their roster has no shortage of bucket-getters, but without their primary scorer, finding the solution became a priority. Before the game, Nets head coach Jacque Vaughn announced that Joe Harris would start in Durant’s place. Harris did not disappoint with 18 points to support Kyrie Irving’s 24.
Tj Warren clocked in 20 points, while Seth Curry and Royce O’Neale had 11 points each. But it just was not enough. Durant would score these numbers on a bad night. Though this would have earned them a victory against the lesser teams in the league, it showed just how big of a void Durant leaves against the top-tier teams in the NBA.
Ben Simmons absolutely needs to get baskets.
Zero points. Although that is comedic, it is not a joke. You would expect the third piece of your supposed “Big Three” to step up, especially when the first man is down. On paper, Ben Simmons is supposed to be the answer to the problem that is being without Durant. But instead, Simmons looked allergic to the basket. So much so that he does not even look at it when driving down on a fast break and passes the ball when he can get a layup.
It is an ongoing criticism that will remain until he acts upon it with urgency. You can go on all day about how he got 13 assists and nine rebounds. He played well on the defensive end and created chances for his teammates. But this is basketball. No matter how valuable boards and passes that lead to buckets are, the Nets need Simmons to get on the scoreboard to succeed. Without Durant, expect the Nets to dig a hole for themselves if teenagers without their after-nines drive more than Simmons.
Kyrie is not and does not have to be Kevin Durant.
ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith got it right. On Thursday’s edition of First Take, Smith hammered down why Durant is more valuable than Irving. “The flare in which he [Irving] does things is box office,” Smith stated. “But KD is an assasin. What KD can do, does not look as spectacular as Kyrie Irving, but it’s more efficient.”
To piggyback off Stephen A’s comments; the argument does not only apply to flare versus production. Both men are spectacular talents, and we have seen how much they feed off each other’s energy. However, another strength that Durant has over Irving is his leadership ability. With Durant and without Irving, the Nets are more likely to win than the contrary. Though it takes a toll on Durant, his leadership and game-closing ability can lift the team enough to earn tough wins. Irving thrives when playing second in command. We have seen this in Cleveland with LeBron James and now in Brooklyn with Durant. Irving struggled as the top dog in Boston and as the face of the franchise in Cleveland before James’ return.
To give Irving his credit, one of the main reasons why the Nets have done well so far this season is his commitment. After a string of controversies, Irving decided to put everything away and focus solely on basketball. As one of the most graceful handlers, best finishers, and closers the league has seen, Irving is great for whoever he represents. Although he will not be as valuable as Kevin Durant in Brooklyn, the next few weeks are a great proving ground for him not only as a player but as a leader for his team.