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Preview: Brooklyn Nets Visit Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers to Open 2021-22 NBA Season

Nets get started on the road against fellow Eastern Conference powers

The Brooklyn Nets are again front-and-center at the start of the NBA season, tipping off the 2021-22 campaign with the first game of the league year when they visit the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks on Tuesday night. It’s part of a loaded opening week among the Eastern Conference elite, with the Nets visiting the Philadelphia 76ers on Friday.

While the Sixers led the Eastern Conference with a 49-23 record last season, the Nets were a game behind at 48-24 for the highest winning percentage in franchise history. The Bucks were another two games back at 46-26 and eventually edged the Nets 115-11 in overtime of Game 7 in their second-round playoff series on the way to the title.

The Nets had jumped out to a 2-0 lead in that series before injuries disrupted their own title quest. As the series tightened, Kevin Durant stepped into the void with a pair of indelible performances. His 49-point, 17-rebound, 10-assist triple-double while playing all 48 minutes in Brooklyn’s Game 5 win was the first to hit those numbers in NBA history. He followed up with 48 points — the highest-scoring Game 7 in NBA history — while playing all 53 minutes.

Carrying the same championship aspirations they did last June, the Nets will open up a new season against the team that eliminated them from the playoffs.

“It’s the first game of the season,” said Nets head coach Steve Nash. “No matter who we play, let’s play well. Let’s worry about ourselves. Let’s worry about a good performance and playing together and being connected. The outcomes will take care of themselves. We don’t get too caught up in narratives because we play 82 games. If you’re having a narrative every night you’ve going to be exhausted about week two, so we just try to stick to what we do and come out and be prepared and play as well as we possibly can on the night.”

The Nets and Bucks had the NBA’s two strongest scoring squads last season with the Bucks first in points per game (120.1) and the Nets second (118.6), while Brooklyn led the league in offensive rating (117.3), field goal percentage (49.4), and effective field goal percentage (57.5) while ranking second in 3-point percentage (39.2). Milwaukee was second in offensive rating (116.5), second in effective field goal percentage (56.6), third in field goal percentage (48.7), and fifth in 3-point percentage (38.9).

The Sixers will offer a different type of challenge at the end of the week. Philadelphia was a premier defensive team in 2020-21, ranking second in defensive rating (107.0), fourth in opponent field goal percentage allowed (45.3), tying for the league lead in steals per game (9.1) and finishing second in blocks per game (6.2).

That’s the area of the floor the Nets are putting an emphasis on with room for improvement. They ranked 22nd in the league in allowing 113.1 points per 100 possessions last year, but that number may not be predictive of who this team actually is on the defensive end considering all the personnel changes they dealt with during the season last year as well as new faces added over the summer.

“Defense is, it’s gotta be on the top of the list for us,” said Blake Griffin. “When our communication is good, I think we’re a lot better. When we get quiet, we have a bunch of guys defensively who know what to do. We’ve just got to be on the same page. When you’re switching out of stuff and you’re playing non-traditional lineups, your communication has to be better. That’s what we’ve worked on in practice.”

Last season, the Nets were in flux throughout the year, with 27 different players on the roster and regularly shifting rotations as they retooled following the trade for Harden and dealt with injuries and absences along the way. Their defensive performance had its swings throughout the year, looking solid early, dropping after the trade of Jarrett Allen in the Harden deal before stabilizing for a stretch, then looking energized in the playoffs, where they allowed just 109.3 points per 100 possessions over 12 games, a number that would have ranked fifth in the league during the regular season.

Now they get to start together from day one to get things in order on that end and ideally not have to adapt to the personnel changes they managed through last season.

“That plays a huge part,” said Kevin Durant. “When we can talk out schemes and philosophies the first day of camp we can build those habits from day one. That's always a great thing. When James came in it felt like we switched our whole defense, offense, to kind of cater to the players that we had because we had four, five guys go out so we had to adjust how we wanted to play and I think this year, having a versatile group from day one, we're talking over different defenses, different schemes that we can use and that's always good. So it's good to have that veteran presence here and everybody has been energetic and communicating at a high level.”

The additions over the summer of veterans such as Paul Millsap and Patty Mills, along with the return of LaMarcus Aldridge, have stretched out Brooklyn’s depth and lineup options. Nash has said it will be a work in progress and rotations may be fluid depending on circumstances.

“We feel good,” said Nash last week. “I don’t know if that means we’re going to get off to a 10-0 start, but we feel good about the guys. Their approach, their energy, their commitment has been great, and we’ll get there when we get there. But you can’t ask for anything more than what the guys have provided us on the floor in practice and in these games.

“And we’re also not in a race. This isn’t a situation where we have to be a finished product at the start of the season. We want to incorporate these guys in a natural way to build on last year’s continuity in a natural way with the new players and allow it to come. I think you can force it or you can put too much pressure on that process, and I think it can backfire. I think we’re trying to do it in a healthful way.”

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