November 28, 2022

Nets loss to Bucks underscores glaring areas for improvement

Steve Nash was ejected from the game on Wednesday night. (Morry Gash/AP)

This is what playoff basketball looks, sounds — and if you ask either team — feels like.

Bodies colliding. Coaches fired up. A wire-to-wire game that’s decided late in the fourth.

The Nets’ 110-99 loss to the 2021 NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks gave it all. Steve Nash was tossed after a double technical in the third quarter. Kevin Durant suffered a stinger in his shoulder and Ben Simmons winced with back pain — and continued to struggle to find his footing on the offensive end.

But in the end, it was still a game. And in the end, the Nets had a chance to win.

Make no mistake: The Nets would love an undefeated start to their season. They would love for the fruits of what will be a full season’s worth of labor actually reflected in the win column.

They knew, however, they would be off to a tough start — with Luka Doncic’s Dallas Mavericks awaiting on Thursday for the second leg of a back-to-back. They knew the wins wouldn’t rack up early. You didn’t need Nash, Kyrie Irving or Simmons to say things would look ugly before they got pretty.

There continues to be, however, areas the Nets will need to improve on if they’re going to eventually start turning that progress into victories.

DEPTH AT THE FIVE

It’s clear as day that both Nic Claxton and second-year big man Day’Ron Sharpe have improved from where they were last season.

It’s also clear as day that those improvements, quite frankly, aren’t enough.

The Nets have a new motto, and it’s one word: ‘trust’ ]

That’s because other teams are just going to brute force their way into the paint, just like Giannis Antetokounmpo did in the third quarter. After the Nets went on a 35-18 second-quarter run to take a 55-43 lead into halftime, Antetokounmpo responded by taking the Carmelo Anthony-coined ‘bully ball’ to a different level.

Antetokounmpo scored 17 of his 43 points in the third quarter, and he did the same way: either on the low left block, pummeling his way through whichever defender the Nets put on him; or downhill in transition or after a rebound, putting his head and shoulder down and getting to the rim.

The Nets don’t have an answer for that, just like they didn’t have an answer for New Orleans’ Zion Williamson and Jonas Valanciunas; like they didn’t have an answer for Memphis’ Steven Adams and Brandon Clarke; and like they won’t have an answer for the foreseeable future at the top of an Eastern Conference where the teams leading to the Finals will all be bigger and stronger than the Nets as currently constructed.

NBA fixture Jeff Van Gundy said it best during ESPN’s broadcast. Van Gundy was asked specifically if he believed the Nets can contend at a high level with only Claxton and Sharpe playing the five.

“I think they definitely have to explore all opportunities to get a different type of big,” he said.

It’s worth noting Markieff Morris missed his second straight game for personal reasons, and it’s the second time in a row a team all but bullied the Nets to a double-digit loss.

“SHOOT IT BEN”

Those were the actual words Irving screamed after dumping the ball off to Simmons a few feet from the rim, only for Simmons to pause, never look at the rim, and pass to a teammate.