You can’t win a title on opening night. As important as the first game of a team’s season feels, it’s still just one game—a small sample size on which you can’t base much, in the grand scheme of things. What it can do, though, is offer a glimpse of why everything might work, and how it could look if things break right.
And holy hell, did the Nets give us reason to believe on Tuesday.
This is Kevin Durant putting an end to the portion of the season opener that the Warriors led. It came just 71 seconds into the contest:
Welcome back, KD pic.twitter.com/oEAV6SLwox— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) December 23, 2020
Brooklyn needed fewer than five minutes to build a double-digit lead, fewer than 11 minutes to go up by 20, and fewer than two quarters to effectively extinguish any possibility that the first game of the 2020-21 NBA season might be competitive. The Nets annihilated the visiting Warriors on Tuesday in a 125-99 drubbing that frankly wasn’t even as close as that lopsided score might indicate. Brooklyn’s performance suggested the full-strength squad we’ve been waiting 17 months to see might be every ounce as lethal as the Nets and their fans have hoped.
Warriors coach Steve Kerr said Monday that he “could not tell one difference” between the Durant he saw suiting up for Brooklyn in preseason and the version he coached to two championships in Golden State before Durant ruptured his right Achilles tendon; he termed KD’s unbelievably smooth return “kind of scary for the rest of the league.” A day later, Kerr got the league’s first look at just how frightening KD can still be.
KD attacks baseline and has a quick 10 PTS on TNT! #KiaTipOff20 pic.twitter.com/vSDTDEQSU0— NBA (@NBA) December 23, 2020
The 10-time All-Star showed no signs of rust, using his familiar, imperial game—the hesitation dribble into a pull-up triple, the double crossover against overmatched big men, the unblockable face-up jumper off the block, the playmaking out of the post, the ZIP code–covering strides running the floor on the break—to familiar effect. Durant reached double-digit points just four minutes and 40 seconds into his first real game in 561 days, finishing with 22 points on 7-for-16 shooting with five rebounds, three assists, three steals, and a block in 25 minutes. It was a hell of a comeback after so much time away … and Durant wasn’t even the Nets’ most eye-popping offensive player on Tuesday.
Kyrie is dancing on the Warriors pic.twitter.com/b1gj218XEr— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) December 23, 2020
The scorching form that Irving showed in preseason—14-for-24 from the field, 5-for-9 from deep in Brooklyn’s two-game exhibition slate—carried over to live action, as he torched Golden State’s defenders to the tune of a game-high 26 points in 25 minutes. It’s not exactly breaking news that Irving can sparkle playing next to a dominant wing scorer and playmaker, but Tuesday offered a sharp reminder of how efficiently he can do it and the variety in his offensive repertoire; he finished with 10-for-16 shooting with four rebounds, four assists, and just one turnover. He carved the Warriors up off the bounce and off the catch, knifing through the defense for stop-and-pop Js over the outstretched arms of would-be shot blockers and pulling from deep (dare I say, Steph range?) to pour in points from all over the court. Few players can disarm a defense in as many ways as Durant and Irving; when they’re both on, it might be just a matter of time before the floodgates open.
The floodgates opened quickly on Tuesday, and that confirmed many pundits’ concerns about how the Warriors might look without both Klay Thompson, lost for yet another season with an Achilles rupture of his own, and Draymond Green, who missed Golden State’s preseason slate after contracting COVID-19 and also suffering a foot injury.
Without Thompson on hand to threaten defenses with his scorching shooting, and without Green available to pilot the offense and take advantage of the havoc Stephen Curry wreaks running around off the ball, the Warriors’ attack looked dead on arrival for most of the night. After shooting just 42.6 percent from the field in preseason play, Curry’s struggle to find the touch on his shot continued, as he needed 21 shots to score his team-high 20 points. He did manage 10 assists in 30 minutes, which was kind of surprising; it didn’t feel like his teammates made 10 buckets total all night.
No. 2 pick James Wiseman showed flashes in his first NBA start, scoring 19 points in 24 minutes and displaying the kind of boldness—a corner 3! two length-of-the-court drives! a sweeping hook in the lane!—that suggests he won’t shrink from the challenge of making plays in his rookie season. The athletic young wings the Warriors are counting on to relieve some of the offensive burden on Curry, though, receded in a major way. Andrew Wiggins and Kelly Oubre Jr. combined to shoot just 7-for-30 from the field. This iteration of the Warriors won’t win, or even compete in, many games if those dudes keep missing three-quarters of their shots.
December 23, 2020
Curry and Kerr have their work cut out for them, as they look to take an overhauled rotation light on viable shooters and creators and craft a playoff-caliber attack. (The task does not get easier in Golden State’s second game, which is on Christmas Day against Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks.) Brooklyn, on the other hand, can point to Tuesday’s win as a proof of concept.
The Nets moved the ball and their bodies, notching seven assists on their first 10 baskets as they built an advantage they’d never relinquish. First-time head coach Steve Nash clearly emphasized the importance of cranking up the tempo, as Brooklyn hunted opportunities to run off Golden State turnovers and missed shots; more than 25 percent of the Nets’ possessions came in transition, according to Cleaning the Glass, and they scored more than 1.6 points per play on the break, a monstrous number.
The Nets’ starting five—DeAndre Jordan in the middle, flanked by Durant, Irving, high-volume marksman Joe Harris, and Spencer Dinwiddie, who averaged nearly 21 points and seven assists per game last season—features enough shooting and playmaking to stretch even good defenses past their breaking points. Their bench features three former starters who can feast on opposing second units: bubble star Caris LeVert (who popped for 20-9-5 in 25 minutes of work), rim-protecting lob threat Jarrett Allen, and combo forward Taurean Prince. Even the guys at the end of Brooklyn’s bench can play. This team is deep, which will give Nash a host of options as he mixes and matches his rotations on any given night, and allow him to give Durant and Irving some nights off to rest for what all parties involved hope will be a deep postseason run.
We shouldn’t start designing the banner to hoist to the Barclays Center rafters just yet. The Nets won’t always look this good, and there will be nights when you wonder if they might need a little help. (Like, say, from Houston.) There are plenty of tests to come for Durant, Irving, Nash, and the Nets; all you can do is take them as they come. What matters now, though, is that Brooklyn aced its first with flying colors. The stars look sensational. The role players fit, and the roster makes sense; with KD finally back on the floor, everything makes sense. It took a year and a half, but the team of Sean Marks’s dreams is finally here. And it has a chance to be a friggin’ problem.