If you’ve ever tried to bake, you know it’s a difficult process. You measure everything right, follow the recipe to the letter, pop your concoction in the oven. About halfway through the suggested baking time, though, sometimes you get curious and want to see how things are turning out, so you open the oven door for a quick look. Boom. Your cake, soufflé or loaf of bread is ruined forever. Why? Because you got ahead of yourself and neglected to respect the process.
After the Brooklyn Nets’ 125-99 dismantling of the Golden State Warriors in the first game of the 2020-21 season, it must be tempting for fans to start pre-ordering championship gear. Kevin Durant was phenomenal in his first real game since June of 2019, putting up 22 points in 25 minutes. Kyrie Irving looked healthy and spry, able to get whatever shot he wanted en route to 26 points in 25 minutes. More than the two stars, however, Steve Nash’s deep bullpen of solid-to-above-average NBA players was on display on opening night.
Caris LeVert snatched the reins of the second unit, putting up 20 points, nine rebounds and five assists, and the Nets’ depth was even more evident when Bruce Brown, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Rodions Kurucs and Tyler Johnson came on as the final reserves off the bench. All those players had prominent roles at times last season, either in Brooklyn or elsewhere, and they may not even make the rotation.
The Nets are a title contender. Anyone who watched that game knows this. But the problem is, the Nets know it too. The challenge moving forward will be to remain focused on the present, getting better each day and not taking a peek in the oven too early.
“We’ve been working hard during training camp, and we just want that hard work to continue to pay off in the long run,” Irving said after the win. “We’re gonna enjoy this regular season game-to-game, but we ultimately know what the goal is after these 72 games, and that’s 16 wins.”
It’s become a trite piece of NBA vernacular to say, “don’t skip steps,” but that should be the goal for the Nets in the early season. The Los Angeles Clippers were pegged as NBA title favorites all the way up until their inauspicious exit from the bubble after watching a 3-1 lead evaporate against the Denver Nuggets in brutal fashion. Judging by the reports that have come out since, the Clippers clearly never got on the same page in terms of chemistry or game plan, and they suffered in the end because of it.
Brooklyn needs to avoid making the same mistakes over the course of the season, and realize that they have to earn their way into the championship conversation based on what they do on the court, rather than their star power and loaded roster. Durant faces an especially difficult course, having to not only rehabilitate his body and skillset after a lengthy layoff from competitive basketball due to a torn Achilles, but also acclimate himself to his new teammates on the floor.
“I think each game as we continue to build, we’ll get more and more comfortable with each other,” Durant said of his teammates after the opening night win. “That’s probably the thing that I’ve learned the most, is to try to learn each guy’s favorite spot on the floor and what they like to do. So it’s gonna take some time to get everything downloaded.”
It’s impossible to have any discussion of Nets chemistry without bringing up Irving, who demanded a trade from Cleveland and then was part of a toxic locker room environment with the Boston Celtics before joining Brooklyn. He’s already shined a spotlight upon himself by refusing to speak with media during the preseason and seemingly referring to them as “pawns” in a statement.
By all accounts, Irving is well-liked by his teammates. Nash said that Irving has been a vocal leader during camp and in the early season. Irving said that that the relationships he built with his teammates during the offseason have translated to the court. He’s also serving as a mentor of sorts to LeVert, who called Irving’s leadership “super helpful.”
“He’s on me. He’s on me each and every day,” LeVert said after the win over the Warriors. “And it’s always truthful, it’s always real. It’s always — not necessarily what I want to hear, but it’s the right thing to say. I definitely cherish that, for sure.”
If there’s one thing the Nets have going for them, it’s championship pedigree. Durant won two Finals MVPs in three years with Golden State. Irving has made three Finals appearances and hit the biggest shot in Cavaliers history in delivering the franchise its only title. They know the long road ahead of them, and precisely how much it takes — physically and emotionally — to get there. Now they just need to be patient and let the process unfold naturally.
“I’m not this one guy that’s depended upon to get us over the hump. No, we have other great players that are developing, that are already established.” Irving said. “We just need to continue to give knowledge, when needed, to these players that are thirsty for it. These guys here want to win just as bad as us [Irving and Durant]. So if you have that winning attitude and mentality, it’s easy for me to fall in line and follow direction.
“We just keep it real simple around here. It’s basketball. We’ve been doing this for a long time. Now we’re at the top of the top, and now is our chance to continue to show why we are that way.”