Nets, playing first real game of season without Kyrie Irving, routed by defending champion Bucks in NBA opener

·4 min read

MILWAUKEE — When it’s quiet at the FiServ Forum, home to the defending NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks, it’s dead silent.

Sounds reverberate with ease throughout the 730,000 square-foot, 128-foot tall arena when it’s quiet.

When it’s loud, it’s impossible to hear anything other than the white noise piercing through the arena’s glass windows, buzzing in and out of the thick blocks of cement weather-proofing the inside. It’s hard to hear a thing.

So when Bucks fans caused a magnitude 10 earthquake during their team’s championship ring ceremony, there’s no way the Nets didn’t feel it. No way they didn’t hear it. Even if they didn’t see it.

In the days leading up to the anticipated rematch between the reigning champs and the should-have-could-haves, the Nets shrugged off the Bucks’ ring ceremony. Just another game. Just another opponent. An opponent that happened to have eliminated them out of the second round of the playoffs last season, but just another opponent nonetheless. One of 82 before the playoffs begin.

Yet the Nets were nowhere to be found when every member of the Bucks organization received their championship rings on Tuesday night, nowhere to be found when the crowd exploded for Giannis Antetokounmpo, who made good on his long standing promise to break Milwaukee’s 50-year championship drought. A promise the Nets made to their faithful fan base, only to fall short in the second round.

So the Nets didn’t hit the court until after the last championship ring had been handed out. They waited until the party had already concluded. They trotted onto the hardwood, peppered by the same boos and the same chants they received as Public Enemy No. 1 in Milwaukee last postseason.

The Nets begin their season with the same sour taste they ended the last: With a 127-104 loss to a team they’re supposed to be better than.

The Bucks had the Nets’ number without Kyrie Irving (ineligible), just like they had the Nets’ number without Irving (ankle) in the playoffs. They continued to have the Nets’ number after Jrue Holiday, Milwaukee’s third-best player, left for the game in the second quarter with a right heel contusion.

That is by design. The Bucks roster is constructed in a way that continues to exploit Brooklyn’s weaknesses. They are a big team that bullies opponents in the paint, spaces the floor for threes and whips the ball around the court like a game of hot potato.

The Nets tried their own rendition of going big, starting Nic Claxton alongside Blake Griffin, trotting out LaMarcus Aldridge with Paul Millsap. They went small, too, often playing a pair of six-footers in Patty Mills and Jevon Carter with one another.

The Nets’ biggest lineup couldn’t railroad Antetokounmpo, the tractor trailer with a newfound jump shot. Hours after receiving his very first championship ring, he finished with 32 points, 14 rebounds, seven assists and two blocks against the same team he eliminated en route to earning his new jewel.

What became most clear on Tuesday night was how much of a gap the Nets have to make up between could have and could win. The Nets as presently constructed can dominate most middling teams and probably beat a few elite teams on the backs of their stars. But with one fewer star in tow as Irving watches from afar, it becomes more difficult for the Nets to talent their way to victory.

It’s much easier to say you’re going to replace Irving by committee than to actually do it.

Patty Mills did his best Irving impression. He hit his first seven threes, the most threes made without a miss for any player off the bench in his first game of the season. Ever. But the threes alone weren’t enough.

The Nets miss Irving’s aggression, his ability to create for others, the gravity he creates from the sheer thought of him getting a clean look from anywhere on the floor. Mills may have done as good a job as he’ll do all season, a perfect individual night. Far from it as a team.

This, however, was expected. The Nets viewed the Bucks as a measuring stick game, yes, but they have been consistent about this team, this season being a work in progress. By no means was this going to be smooth sailing.

The ride doesn’t get much smoother, either: Next up is a Philadelphia 76ers team that poses many of the same issues as the Bucks.

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