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Three Minutes Of Aggression And Other Takeaways From Nets’ First Preseason Victory
Even in the preseason, some NBA teams just don’t like to go winless. That’s why Mike Budenholzer, head coach of the previously 0-4 Bucks, had three of his starters, including superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo, out on the court with his team down by double digits until the last few minutes of Brooklyn’s 107-97 victory in Milwaukee on Wednesday night.
I’m not sure how uplifting such a comeback would have been in the minds of a team with the highest of aspirations, considering the Nets held on with their “C” team unit of four second-year players plus two-way rookie Alondes Williams to give the club its first exhibition win. As much fun as it was for Nets fans to watch The Greek Freak and Friends stumble and fumble down the stretch while Brooklyn’s Big 3 of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and Ben Simmons cheered on the youngsters from the bench, I’m sorry to say it doesn’t count for anything.
Similarly, the Nets’ superiority in this contest, while a welcome sight after a pair of discombobulated performances in their first two games, also has to be discounted. Multiple key players on each side did not dress and the efforts from some of the veterans who were just using their minutes to ramp up into basketball shape could best be described as selective.
However, some aspects of the game were worthy of parsing:
1) Simmons unleashed in unstaggered lineup
In his first nine minutes of action playing with Brooklyn’s starters, Simmons continued a trend where he defers to his more efficient star teammates. He didn’t attempt a single shot nor did he get to the free throw line. Fortunately for Brooklyn, their screening and passing execution was way more on point than in the prior games, so the Nets were able to nudge ahead by the time both KD and Kyrie took a seat.
It's understandable if Simmons was rusty after not playing all last season with mental and physical issues. He’ll also need time to integrate his unique game into a new team. Still, the Nets need more from a player they are paying nearly $35.5 million this season. When he’s so disinclined to shoot, it’s hard to tell where any problems lie.
Sure, Simmons’ defense, especially the times he was matched up against Antetokounmpo, was excellent and he finished with 10 assists, but he also has to be a threat to score, despite his perimeter shooting flaw, or else opponents (at least those that play hard) can stack the paint and run additional defenders at Durant and Irving. This is exactly what happened during the Nets’ four-game sweep by Boston in last postseason’s first round.
Head Coach Steve Nash usually staggers KD and Kyrie’s minutes so that the Nets can always have one elite scoring option on the floor. This time, though, both stars were out of the game for the final three minutes of the first quarter.
Was it purposeful to jolt Simmons into a more aggressive posture knowing he had no other shot creators at his disposal? Whatever, it worked: He immediately hit a running floater with his off (right) hand just inside the foul line. He caught the Bucks napping after a made basket and found wing Yuta Watanabe ahead for an open three-pointer. He missed the same floater, but grabbed the offensive rebound and finished with a baby hook from just outside the restricted area. After a terrific Patty Mills hustle play created a steal, Simmons cut to the rim to receive a Day’Ron Sharpe pass for a transition dunk. And, with 10 seconds remaining in the frame, Simmons backed down his man on the left post, drew a double team, and made a nifty pass out to Watanabe for another three-ball to give Brooklyn a 33-25 lead after one.
Unfortunately, Simmons attempted just one other field goal in his following 17 minutes of playing time, though he did knock down his first free throw of the preseason (during his four attempts). In important games, that isn’t going to cut it, not when the ball is in his hands so often. At six-foot 10, he should be hunting for mismatches off pick-and-rolls and posting up smaller defenders.
Curious to see if Nash tries the unstaggered lineup again early in the season to jump-start Simmons’ aggression.
2) Joe Harris vs Royce O’Neale
There may actually be a battle for a spot in the Nets’ starting five. With Harris nursing a sore ankle after starting the preseason opener against Philadelphia, O’Neale has stepped up during the last two exhibitions.
They may play the same position, but they are not the same player. Harris is a perennial contender for the NBA’s three-point champion. He’s constantly moving without the ball, which works well on such a high-IQ team. Last season ended prematurely on November 14, and two surgeries later, he’s still going to require some maintenance for the ankle. Even when healthy, opponents targeted him on defense, but he hustled enough on that end to make sure that the gravity he supplies to Brooklyn’s offense made him a net positive on the court.
O’Neale, for whom the Nets surrendered a first-round pick in an offseason trade with Utah, isn’t nearly that level of a three-point marksman—his 38.9% efficiency from deep last season was his career high. He’s been more of a drifter than a cutter, though he has had some nice finishes around the basket this preseason. His biggest value is bringing a bulldog mentality on the defensive end, which is a trait the Nets were lacking last season.
Assuming both players are at 100%, it’s a much tougher call than I expected. My guess is that Nash will go with the more offensive bent in Harris, knowing that with reserves like Curry, Mills, Morris, et al, he’ll need to save some defensive prowess for the second unit.
3) Pigeonholing Markieff Morris as a center may not be a 4-gone conclusion
Under Nash, when opponents go big, he too often chooses for his club to remain small. He made 6-foot 1 Seth Curry guard center Al Horford in the Boston series. Blake Griffin, a power forward throughout his career, was pretty much entrenched as a 5 last season and was never given a chance to play with center Nic Claxton in a twin towers lineup to counter Boston’s size advantage.
So when Nash was asked during training camp about Morris’ role for this season’s squad and he responded with “He’s a 5”, I rolled my eyes. “Here we go again,” I thought. Yet there was the 6-foot 9 Morris out on the Milwaukee floor paired with more natural centers Sharpe or Claxton for all but one of his 12 minutes of run. And you know what happened? The Nets did NOT get pulverized (Morris was an irrelevant plus-1).
Part of the fans’ frustrations with Nash (at least those who have reasons other than the Nets haven’t won a championship in his two seasons) is that he has been slow to recognize when his team is at a matchup disadvantage. Certain teams, like Milwaukee, Boston, and Philadelphia, require a different game plan than, say, Charlotte.
Has Nash changed his spots? We’ll see what happens when Curry and Harris return from their ankle woes, possibly in time for the regular season opener against New Orleans on October 19. The preseason, if nothing else, is the perfect time to experiment.