The Nets think they’re still championship-caliber even with Kyrie Irving sitting at home. Now comes the job of proving it.
The Nets closed out the preseason with a 107-101 victory over Minnesota before a crowd of 11,210 at Barclays Center on Thursday night. Irving wasn’t among them, barred due to his refusal to get a COVID-19 vaccine. No matter.
The goal hasn’t been changed, and the bar hasn’t been lowered.
“I think we still have a very high potential. I think we have great characters in our locker room. We have great veterans. We still have a talented group,” coach Steve Nash said. “We lost an incredibly talented player, but we’re still a very talented group. And like I said, veterans, character, and I think we can build something great. Our goal hasn’t changed: It’s just the way there has to be a little bit different.”
Like a little less highlight-reel offense, and a bit more defense and size.
Brooklyn has leaned into small-ball throughout general manager Sean Marks’ tenure, but with Irving out indefinitely, they’ll experiment with everything — including going big.
Yes, Joe Harris led the way with 23 points on efficient 8-for-12 shooting, including 7-for-10 from deep. And the stars played like stars, Kevin Durant with 19 points and seven rebounds while James Harden had his best outing of the preseason with 14 assists.
But the Nets started two traditional bigs in Nic Claxton and Paul Millsap, and moved Harris from small forward to off-guard in lieu of Irving.
“Well, I think we’ve got to explore both big and small lineups,” Nash said. “For sure, we’ll certainly explore some bigger lineups, and we also want to explore some small lineups where we adapt to our new kind of roster, so to speak. I think we look for a lot of optionality and solutions to different issues and matchups.”
At least for a night it worked.
The bigs largely played well. LaMarcus Aldridge had 16 points off the bench, while Millsap added 10n points and nine boards. But the most auspicious was Claxton.
The young big was back after missing Monday’s preseason loss in Philadelphia with a non-COVID illness. Claxton has struggled to get his conditioning back, playing poorly in a minus-4 effort in the preseason opening win at the Lakers on Oct. 3. He looked somewhat better in the win over the Bucks last Friday, and cracked double figures with 11 points, seven boards and stellar defense to finish plus-26.
“This felt good,” said Claxton, whose mandate from the coaches was simple. “Just being more active on the defensive end, just be a menace on the defensive end.”