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Kyrie, Harden and Durant not enough for Brooklyn

January 21st, 2021

Kyrie Irving couldn’t help but laugh when Brooklyn’s video game numbers were presented to him.

He also admitted to laughing when Collin Sexton spoiled the debut of the most intriguing trio in the NBA with a career night — in Irving’s signature shoes, at that.

Some new days have executive orders trying to erase damage from the past while other new days present all the work that’s yet to be done.

The Nets are clearly in the latter, evidenced by the Cleveland Cavaliers outlasting them in a 147-135 double-overtime marathon that won’t be remembered much should they make it to July. There won’t be a Sexton dropping 20 straight points when it counts; it could be someone better, more seasoned, more accomplished than the Cavaliers’ fast-developing youngster, ready to exploit the obvious flaws in the Nets’ still-developing unit.

Irving returned after his 15-day sabbatical, combining with Kevin Durant and James Harden for 96 points. Even though they seemed to force the ball early to Irving to get him on track, it’s easy to see the brilliance when all three are flowing.

It’s perhaps the best two scorers in the NBA … and Kyrie Irving.

In a flash, they can erase deficits that are built from bad habits, complacency or even roster holes.

It’s not quite like the Kevin Durant/Stephen Curry Golden State Warriors, exploiting your every mistake with team-wide excellence and long bombs. This outfit seems like it’ll just walk you down, mercilessly, with some of the best solo work the game has ever seen. Death by a thousand dribbles.

“I think any one of us would take a win over those great stats, they sound incredible for a first game out for a few great teammates,” said Irving, who scored 37 on a team-high 28 shots. “We’re responsible for putting these pieces together and making it work. Offensively it clearly wasn’t enough tonight. We still needed to get stops on the other end. That’s going to be the tale of our season is how committed are we to that end of the floor.”

Harden notched another triple-double and Durant reaffirmed his standing as the most dangerous dude in the league but yet they lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Rebuilding, yes, but rebounding, as in Andre Drummond and ex-Net Jarrett Allen.

Kyrie Irving returned to the Brooklyn Nets on Wednesday. (Jason Miller/Getty Images)

Size still matters.

Nets are lacking defensively

Irving didn’t have to talk about his team’s commitment to the defensive end being key, because it was laid bare. The surplus the Nets have in scoring is offset by what they lack defensively. Placing all their burdens on DeAndre Jordan — while still effective — is years removed from the back-line force he was as a Los Angeles Clipper.

And while they were battling a team not many expect to be a factor in the East, Joel Embiid was hell on wheels for the conference-leading Philadelphia 76ers against the Boston Celtics, looking like the best big man this side of California and someone you must have specific personnel for down the line.

“These are just words,” said Irving, referencing the need to be better defensively. “Until we meet it with actions and go out and do the little things and prepare a little bit better … I don’t say that to mistake my words, as we prepare better moving forward, we were just kind of thrown these last few days.”

Irving carefully choosing his words is a reminder of all the things the Nets have been through in a short span, in an unusual season already. One that will call for a little grace while working out the unnatural feelings that can sprout in this setup.

When you hit your first 10 shots in a way that doesn’t feel anomalous, it’s easy to allow the opponent to get comfortable, “bad” shooters or not. And like Sexton showed, when a guy feels it, his best can beat yours on a given night.

Defensively, these are not the Durant Warriors that would shut you down, then run away and hide for the rest of the night.

“Statistically, [Cleveland is] the worst offense in the league, the worst shooting team in the league and come back and make 20 threes,” Durant said. “Give them credit, they made shots all night. We’ll find our groove, our rhythm. It’s still early.”

Brooklyn’s glaring holes

General manager Sean Marks has been the steward, benefitting from geography, drama or his own organizational brilliance in acquiring these three players over the last 18 months. But this is still an incomplete project with structural flaws.

Some, like making sure Durant doesn’t go several possessions in a row without touching the ball when he’s hot, will likely be fixed through time and exercise. Durant is the most likely to let the other two cook when they have it going, but he must be positioned internally and practically as the centerpiece so Irving and Harden know when to pass up the easy calories. Other issues need Marks’ direct attention, albeit with limited resources to improve on the fringes.

A fully-recovered, fully-engaged Durant looks forceful defensively but the Nets still must be mindful of how much responsibility he has to shoulder so soon, considering he’s the second-tallest player in the rotation.

It’s hard to get a feel for the buyout market, which feels like the only realistic way the Nets can improve at this point.

Going all-in on star power was an easy decision, assuming Irving stays onboard and unexpected absences won’t become the norm.

But staying pat could have the Nets on the outside looking in, although smart money says Marks will be scraping the lint in Brooklyn’s pockets to cover the glaring holes.

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