MILWAUKEE — Call it a cruel joke on the part of the NBA schedule designer, but the Nets must open their 2021-22 season against the defending NBA champion Bucks Tuesday night at Fiserv Forum. Of course, it was the Bucks who eliminated the Nets in Game 7 of the second round last June, and now the Nets have to watch their championship ring ceremony before tipoff.
"This is going to be an awesome atmosphere," Nets veteran Joe Harris said after practice on Monday. "Sour taste in our mouth the last time we played against Milwaukee, so obviously excited we get to start off with them to start the season.
"Nothing to discredit Milwaukee. They had an unbelievable season. Rightfully, NBA champions . . . Right now, they’re the team to beat. For us, it’s not looking too far ahead. All of the focus is on Milwaukee and getting a good start to the season."
Obviously, the Bucks’ "Big 3" of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday returns intact, but the Nets’ are down to a "Big 2" of Kevin Durant and James Harden because Kyrie Irving is unvaccinated and can’t play games in New York under the local COVID-19 mandate, so the Nets decided he can’t practice or play with them until he is eligible for all games.
The controversy surrounding Irving made for a bumpy preseason, but since general manager Sean Marks announced the decision a week ago, things have settled down and the Nets can move ahead with some clarity about who is on board.
Heading into the new season, Durant said the Nets have to focus not only on a couple of on-court objectives but also must handle off-court distractions. On the court, Durant said the Nets need to cut down on turnovers and improve their rebounding because they too often had fewer possessions than their opponents.
As for the off-court part, Durant said, "We know how crazy this year might be as far as the chatter around our team. So we want to stay locked in with each other, focus on whoever’s in the building and let that stuff take care of itself.
"You can’t control what people say and articles that’s being written, the narrative that’s being formed around our team. It’s part of our job, so we’ve got to deal with that. I wish we could just focus on the purity of the game, but we understand what the moneymaker is here. As long as we focus during the games and lock in once we’re on the floor, we’ll be all right."
Durant said he likes the IQ and experience of the group, and certainly, there is no shortage of veteran star power to accompany he and Harden. Multiple-time former All-Stars Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge returned and were joined by former All-Star forward Paul Millsap plus free-agent guard Patty Mills. Third-year center Nic Claxton might emerge as well.
Overall, coach Steve Nash is happy with the approach since the Kyrie Irving situation was settled. "The guys have been great every day in practice, they’ve been really committed and focused," Nash said. "I’ve been pleased with their application, and you know, the guys are hungry."