Another 81 games lie ahead, but if the season opener is any indication, the defending champion Bucks remain the team to beat in the NBA. Reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo was as dominant as ever with 32 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists Tuesday night at Fiserv Forum to lead the Bucks to a convincing 127-104 blowout victory over a Nets team that entered the season with designs on dethroning the champs.
"Wasn’t good, obviously," Nets coach Steve Nash said of his team’s defense. "I thought we weren’t as sharp as we needed to be. Probably weren’t as physical as we needed to be. Weren’t as organized as we needed to be. But at the same time, the one thing that disappointed me more than anything was loose balls, hustle plays. They seemed to win them all. We’ve got to make it more uncomfortable for people.
"The Bucks looked the same to me. If you’re not playing at a high level against the champs, you’re not going to win."
The last time the Nets visited Fiserv Forum in June, they held a 3-2 second-round playoff lead over the Bucks with a chance to clinch, but they lost Game 6 and then failed to win Game 7 in overtime at home. Kevin Durant topped the Nets with 32 points and 11 rebounds, James Harden added 20 points and eight assists and Patty Mills poured in 21 points, including 7-for-7 shooting from three-point range in his spectacular Nets debut.
But Antetokounmpo got all the help he needed from his supporting cast as Khris Middleton contributed 20 point and nine rebounds, and Pat Connaughton had 20 off the bench. The Bucks outrebounded the Nets, 54-44, and took 21 more shots than the Nets.
The Nets understand the season is a long process in which they have to develop chemistry with several newcomers on the roster, but Durant blamed the poor showing on their failure to match the Bucks’ number of possessions.
"Rotations, rhythm and all that stuff will come, but we can’t give a team 20 more shots than us," Durant said. "Imagine coming into a game and we say, ‘Here, take the ball 20 times on offense before we get an offensive possession.’ Everybody’s going to lose that."
Antetokounmpo scored 13 points and had eight rebounds in the game’s first eight minutes and had nine points in a 21-4 run that gave the Bucks a 19-point first-quarter lead. The Nets repeatedly cut double-digit leads by the Bucks back to single digits, but they couldn’t sustain the momentum from those repeated surges.
They trailed by 14 late in the third quarter and pulled within eight at 101-93 on a three-pointer by Joe Harris with 8:57 left in the game, but back-to-back threes by Jordan Nwora and Grayson Allen plus a three-point play by Antetokounmpo pushed the Bucks’ lead back to 17 at 112-95 with 7:07 left and they cruised from there.
Before the game, the Bucks celebrated their 2021 NBA title with a ring ceremony that ended with them unfurling their championship banner. Most of the Nets stayed in their locker room, but they undoubtedly heard the roaring crowd and likely were reminded of how the Bucks ended their season. Harden said he actually watched the ring ceremony.
"They deserve it," Harden said of the Bucks. "They were the last team standing last year, and we’ve got to work toward the right direction and build to be that team for this upcoming season. It’s going to be fun, there’s going to be games like this to where we build trust and show how great we can be as a team through adversity. Game 1, it doesn’t get easier from here. It’s just something we’ve got to embrace."