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Can the Nets Overcome … Themselves?

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For better and (of course) for worse, the Brooklyn Nets have no shortage of tension. Here are a few things that have happened to them since Kyrie Irving was suspended on November 3rd:

  • Kevin Duran gave an interview Bleach ReportChris Haynes in which, among other things, he said: “Look at our starting XI. Edmond Sumner, Royce O’Neill, Joe Harris, Claxton and myself. It’s not disrespectful, but what do you expect from this band? You expect us to win because I’m there. So, if you look through that lens, you would expect us to play well because No. 7 is there.”
  • The report came from Athletic about the rocky relationship between Ben Simmons and his teammates. It detailed the infamous player-only gathering in Brooklyn on October 29, where Markieff Morris “told all his teammates about how they need Simmons to succeed and how he should respond when faced with adversity on the court.” .
  • After back-to-back losses to the Lakers and Kings, Nets head coach Jacque Vaughn gave one of the best quotes in recent NBA history: “I don’t know if our minds, our bodies and souls still in LALA can sometimes do this to you.” (Brooklyn scored 153 in Sacramento.)

Irving returned to action Sunday night after serving an eight-game suspension for sharing a video of anti-Semitic remarks and then refusing to apologize or publicly denounce his anti-Jewish language. Both Durant and Simmons were also on the lineup. Nearly for the first time in a long time, everything was in order at the Barclays Center. The Nets scored 70 points in the second half and beat the understrength Grizzlies by 12 points. Wins are always good, but this one could be the first of the Brooklyn season that is more than just a relief.

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For a team that is desperately trying to forget the most embarrassing episode in its history, victory is quite possible (I repeat: potential) crucial moment. A real sense of optimism can take over.

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Now, on the verge of coming to some sense of normality, two questions are important: (1) What are Networks? (2) Where do they go from here? A few weeks ago this team was a disgrace. Now healthy, with a new head coach leading a reanimated roster, there are real reasons to be optimistic about this group, aside from the distractions.

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While Irving was suspended, the Nets went 5-3, finishing second in defensive rankings, third in net rankings and fourth in assist percentage. When he’s back on the court, Ben Simmons is starting to look more assertive and a positive influence on both sides (just in time for a Tuesday night trip to Philadelphia!); Kevin Durant is still Kevin Durant; important role players like Joe Harris and Seth Curry are getting in shape; and Yuta Watanabe has become the toughest shooter on the planet.

There is also reasons to feel that the Nets could collapse at any moment. The team has a core personality trait that can best be described as erratic. Time will tell if they have enough shots and discipline to overcome, well, themselves.

There are global questions. Durant may become frustrated with Brooklyn’s inconsistency and demand another deal before the deadline expires. There are 184 players who have made at least 100 shots, and none of them are ranked higher in tough competition than KD. His job difficult, and if the Nets pull back, there are some interesting scenarios to consider, even if they’re unlikely to happen. My favorite passes from Durant in the Blazers to Anferny Simons, who can’t be traded until January 15, Jerami Grant, three unprotected first-round picks and a couple of pick trades. (Portland will have to modify the defense at the 2023 pick it owes the Bulls for this to work.)

The trade request will upend the Nets and change the face of the entire league. But if Durant returns to the organization and Irving avoids hate speech for the next few months, Brooklyn’s only variable on the court will be Simmons, who is slowly returning to the only two-way power that Sean Marks imagined he was getting. The James Harden trade.

On Sunday, Simmons returned to the starting lineup as a ball-breaking center. He attacked the paint, rolled hard off the screen, got to his posts, broke the glass, found open teammates, and had his best basketball game from start to finish since the first round of the 2021 playoffs: 22 points (on 13 shots) , eight rebounds and five assists. When Simmons emphasizes his own power, using his teammates’ gravity and all the space it provides, very good things happen.

Simmons subsequently downplayed his performance, reiterating that he always believed he would return to who he was. His teammates agreed. “I expect that from Ben,” Durant said. “So when he plays well, I’m not going to worry about it.” In fact, it was a huge deal for a team that can’t achieve anything meaningful without him. It also breaks away from another night worth remembering.

However, the biggest turning point of Simmons’ season could have come on Thursday when he wasn’t even on the court. A couple of minutes into Brooklyn’s hard-fought win over the Blazers in the third quarter, Sumner lost sight of Damian Lillard trying to dodge screens, leading to an open Simons 3.

Vaughn replaced Sumner with Simmons on the next dead ball, placing him alongside the rest of the team’s starting lineup, and it’s not an exaggeration to wonder if this decision will be seen as a watershed moment for the Nets and Simmons as we look back three months from now. moment.

Simmons played 19 minutes in the second half – more total than Durant – and had a higher plus/minus than everyone else in the game. He put up great screens, rebounds, competed in defense, ran productive fast breaks (The Nets are more likely to run from an opponent’s missed shot when he’s on the court.), and even rolled into an aggressive dive. It’s too early to know if this is a return to form. Simmons doesn’t look like the ultimate player yet, but he seems to have finally realized he’s bigger and faster than 95 percent of the league’s players:

In the first five games, when Simmons returned with knee pain, Vaughn took him off the bench to experiment with different looks, including fun, tiny lineups in which he was in fifth place surrounded by some of the best shooters in the world. These groups are unstable defensively but are swapped by Durant and Watanabe (which produces an absurd 1.58 points per shot) for, say, Curry and Patty Mills, and suddenly there are more sizes without sacrificing space. (Composition of Simmons-Durant-Watanabe-O’Neal-Harris only played four minutes this season.)

On the defensive, Simmons could be Brooklyn Bam Adebayo himself, a positionless physical monster who switches almost every screen he’s in. The Nets can either place him in the opponent’s main offensive option or neutralize the action by placing him on the one most likely to hit. ball screen.

But the initial problems that made Simmons a polarizing player before he made it to Brooklyn—an allergic reaction to jump shots and a tiring relationship with the free throw line—still exist. He can’t share the court with teammates who don’t shoot, limiting his placement options and in particular forcing Vaughn to either stagger Simmons and Nick Claxton (who missed Sunday’s game for personal reasons) or look for ways to up the offense. with both on the court. There are some possessions where Brooklyn’s pure talent will mitigate the problem, but even someone like Durant can’t consistently get past a tight floor.

And then there’s Simmons’ free throw, a fatal flaw that opponents are once again looking for. Simmons didn’t make a free throw in his first three games back, and Blazers head coach Chauncey Billups decided to foul him twice in a crucial moment on Thursday.

The Nets should be thrilled with what they’ve seen recently from several big players, including Simmons and Watanabe. They also have reason to believe that they have committed a crime will be even better than it was: They rank first in shot probability quantification and 25th in shot count quantification. This is largely due to uncharacteristically low three-point percentages from Joe Harris, Durant and Irving. It should work, especially if Simmons keeps tweaking them with wide-eyed transitions.

Of course, it was against an opponent who lacked the best backcourt in the NBA, but on Sunday, the Nets worked out. They made a season-high 33 assists and shot 60.2% from the floor. Basketball is yet to be played and this team cannot be trusted until it spends a few more weeks looking just like it did against Memphis.

But if Simmons, Durant, and Irving find a way to complement each other, and if they’re backed by a cast that was originally designed to make their lives easier, Brooklyn could really be like a playoff team, if not more.


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