Can the Nets be stopped?
Or are they just going to roll all the way to an NBA title?
That question emerged as a legitimate one Monday night after the Nets, playing their first full game without James Harden, crushed the Milwaukee Bucks, 125-86, to take a 2-0 lead in their Eastern Conference semifinals series.
The Nets handled the heartbreak of losing one of their best players by breaking the spirit of a team many had considered to be their toughest out in the postseason.
With Harden and his sore hamstring watching in street clothes from a chair behind the basket, Kyrie Irving set the tone on the Nets’ first possession when he hit a 25-footer just 33 seconds into the game.
He and the rest of his teammates continued to pile on as a discombobulated Milwaukee team stumbled around on offense and defense.
Kevin Durant was practically unstoppable, scoring 32 points and shooting 12-for-18. Irving finished with 22 points, including nine points in the first quarter. Blake Griffin looked like he had time-traveled back to his glory days with the Clippers, slamming in two dunks in the first half that brought the Barclays Center crowd to their feet.
Durant looked like the pre-Achilles surgery Durant who won back-to-back MVPs with Golden State, coach Steve Nash said.
"It’s really hard to tell the difference," Nash said. "He’s not only executing at that level. But he’s able to play the minutes and sustain a high level of efficiency. It’s hard to say he has any dip at this point."
The Nets hit a franchise playoff-record 21 threes.
Perhaps the biggest stunner was that the Nets somehow held the most prolific regular-season offense in the NBA to just 41 points in the first half. The Nets’ 64-41 lead at the break was the second-largest halftime lead in franchise playoff history.
Giannis Antetokounmpo scored just six points in the first half and finished with 18. The game was so far gone that he didn’t play the entire fourth quarter. Khris Middleton scored 17 points and Jrue Holiday had 13.
No one wanted this win more than Irving.
Irving is the architect of this team. Yes, Sean Marks is the Nets’ general manager, but Irving is the reason that he and Kevin Durant call Barclays Center home and not Madison Square Garden. Irving is the one that launched this grand offensive experiment when he convinced Durant to come to Brooklyn. He is the one that made the Nets appealing enough that Harden decided to come here so he could play alongside his good friend Durant.
While Irving has already won an NBA title with LeBron James in Cleveland, he still has a lot to prove. In Cleveland, Irving was James’ sidekick. With the Nets, Irving, Durant and Harden are so equal that they averaged respectively 26.9, 26.9 and 24.6 points in the regular season.
In the Nets’ 115-107 win in Game 1, it was Irving who sent the message that the Nets were going to win this despite the trauma of having their teammate walk out of the arena clutching his hamstring. Irving played a season-high 44 minutes and scored 25 points off a dazzling array of dribble moves. That included 20 first-half point while the rest of the team was still trying to absorb the loss of Harden.
The Nets have been through a lot this year as they dealt with injuries and COVID-19 absences. Irving believes the adversity they faced in the regular season has prepared them well for the playoffs.
"Obviously, we’re going to feel his loss no matter what," Irving said of Harden. "I’ve been saying it for a while, just in terms of journey this year, what it’s take for us to just continue to persevere and just be resilient. We just gotta dig deep."
Monday night, they did that.