It was difficult to ignore the Kyrie Irving-sized elephant not in the room as the Nets opened the season by getting pummeled, 127-104, by the Milwaukee Bucks on Tuesday night.
It was only one game, but the Nets missed Irving in their starting lineup. They missed him on offense. They missed him as they struggled to work out rotations that kept one star on the floor at all times as they tried in vain to keep pace with the Bucks.
And the Nets will continue to miss him for the foreseeable future, or at least until they lift his banishment from the team over his refusal to accept a coronavirus vaccine. That position has rendered Irving ineligible to play home games in Brooklyn, leading the Nets to temporarily bar him from playing at all and forcing Coach Steve Nash and the team’s other stars, Kevin Durant and James Harden, to re-envision a plan on the fly.
After one night, at least, Durant was preaching patience.
“It is one game out of 82 of them,” he said after collecting 32 points and 11 rebounds. “Every team feels that way.”
The Bucks played like a team familiar with each other, starting mostly the same players that formed the core of the lineup that led the franchise to a championship last season. Three of their best players — Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez — are in their fourth year of starting together. The Nets, meanwhile, began with a lineup that had very little familiarity with each other, including in the preseason, and nearly every player who received significant minutes off the bench was a new addition to the team this season.
“They’ve got some continuity that a lot of teams don’t have,” Durant said knowingly of the Bucks.
The lineup the Nets expected to run out was supposed to feature a murderers’ row on offense, a wealth of options that would allow Nash more flexibility to manage Durant and Harden’s minutes. Instead, with Irving absent, the Nets kept one of either Durant or Harden on the floor at all times on Tuesday to generate offense.
The Nets only sporadically looked fluid, something that surely would have been helped with the skills of an exceptional point guard and shooter like Irving.
Without him, the mantra from the Nets afterward was that the loss to the Bucks was one game of many, and that cohesion will come. The Nets have to build chemistry almost from scratch, while Milwaukee’s mission is to maintain the already developed core.
“We know what level we’ve got to get to,” said Harden, who finished with 20 points, eight rebounds and eight assists. “We will get to that level. It’s Game 1 of a new season.”
“Honestly, we’re excited about this season,” Harden added. “This might have made us even more excited just because we know that there’s a level that we’ve got to get to that we’re not even close.”
One game or not: Last season, the Nets did not lose by 20 points or more until Game 45. .
“One thing that disappointed me more than anything were loose balls and hustle plays — they seemed to win them all,” Nash said. “As we’re trying to find ourselves and explore different rotations and find that cohesion, we’ve got to make it more uncomfortable for people.”
There was one positive for the Nets on Tuesday: Patty Mills, who came off the bench and made seven 3-pointers. Mills, 33, joined the Nets in free agency from the San Antonio Spurs and has been a reserve for almost his entire 13-year career. He is nowhere near as skilled as Irving, but showed on Tuesday that he had the ability to pick up some of the playmaking if needed.
“We’re going to need that from Patty,” Durant said. “We talked the other day about him being aggressive. To be a scorer. To be a playmaker. Tonight was no different. He came out and gave us great energy to start.”
The goal for the Nets is to be so good that the basketball world can stop discussing Irving’s vaccination status. On Tuesday, though, Irving remained a significant point of discussion.
Before the game, Adam Silver, the N.B.A. commissioner, was asked on TNT what message he would send to Irving, if he could.
“I would tell him to be vaccinated, first and foremost for himself and his family,” Silver said. “Next for his teammates and his community and also for the league that I know he cares so much about.
“I understand that it’s not just Kyrie. There are people in this country who disagree with the notion of getting vaccinated, but at least from everything that I understand, science is firmly on the side of getting vaccinated.”
It’s likely — given the Nets’ talent — that Tuesday night’s performance will end up being a blip on the radar. After all, in 2019, the Los Angeles Lakers lost by double digits on opening night to their crosstown rivals, the Clippers, and ended up winning the championship with a roster of mostly new players.
But if it’s more than a blip, this is the reality for the Nets: Irving’s absence will hang over the team. If there are more games like Tuesday ahead, they will need to fill that Irving-sized hole at point guard.