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Nets know from experience defending champion Bucks are tough

Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo shoots over Nets

Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo shoots over Nets forward Kevin Durant in overtime of Game 7 in the NBA Eastern Conference semifinal playoffs at Barclays Center on Saturday, June 19, 2021. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

MILWAUKEE — The Nets were primed for their season opener against the defending NBA champion Bucks Tuesday night at Fiserv Forum, but it was easy to imagine as they watched the championship ring ceremony during the pregame festivities that they couldn’t help but feel they could have been the ones being fitted for the jewelry.

All that separated the Nets from advancing out of the second round last season was the fact that Kevin Durant had one toe on the three-point line when he hit the shot that tied Game 7 at the end of regulation. Another inch back, and Durant’s shot would have eliminated the Bucks if it had been ruled a three-pointer.

Reflecting on that moment at shootaround Tuesday morning, Nets coach Steve Nash said, "You can look at it as if he stepped on the line on the three, you can look at it as we missed an assignment, didn’t make enough shots, whatever it is. I think last year was such a crazy year for our team. We had 27 different players on the roster, 36 starting lineups, and the nine players that were in our rotation to start the playoffs had never been available before for one game the whole season.

"Then to lose James [Harden in the first minute of Game 1 against the Bucks], lose Kyrie [Irving in Game 4], James comes back on one leg [in Games 5-7], it was just stop and start. If anything, it’s just that continuity and lack of common experiences that hurt us as much as a toe on the line."

If nothing else, the Nets entered this season completely healthy. The one person missing was Irving, who has refused to comply with the New York COVID-19 vaccination mandate and has been told by the Nets he can’t join the team unless he is eligible for all games and not just for road games.

With or without Irving, the Bucks figured to be a tall order for the Nets. MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and fellow stars Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday proved to be more than a match for the Nets’ "Big 3 of Harden, Irving and Durant in the playoffs last June.

"They are the champs for a reason," Nash said. "They are a big team, Giannis is a difficult cover, and they have other players around them that are excellent, Middleton, Holiday, but their role players are great. They have a lot of corporate knowledge, they’ve been doing this five years now. So they’re a very well organized, experienced team, and we got to taste that in the playoffs."

Nash declined to discuss his starting lineup before the game. But without Irving, it was likely that Joe Harris would start in the backcourt with Harden while Durant shifted to small forward to pair with forward Blake Griffin and either veteran LaMarcus Aldridge or third-year player Nic Claxton at center. Bruce Brown started several games last season and figured to be on the second unit with guards Patty Mills and Jevon Carter. Forwards Paul Millsap, James Johnson and DeAndre’ Bembry also were in line to get their share of minutes.

Nash prefers a nine-man rotation, so some veterans likely must wait their turn this season. But the coach said everyone has to sacrifice for the greater good of a team with championship aspirations.

"I think we’ll have to explore those things," Nash said of the various lineup combinations that are possible for such a deep, experienced team. "We definitely have the depth to go farther than nine, but each game will be different, each stretch of the season will be different. Availability also impacts that, so we’ll have to see how it goes."

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