The Brooklyn Nets looked invincible to open the 2020-21 NBA season. That is, until, they didn't anymore.
After dominating the first two games of the season, Brooklyn would go on to drop four of its next five games and it looked like the team had been crowned far too early. Further complicating things was a torn ACL suffered by starting guard Spencer Dinwiddie followed by the news that Kevin Durant would miss a week of action due to mandatory contact tracing, per the NBA's health and safety protocols.
As head coach Steve Nash searched for answers, he tinkered with his starting lineup, which resulted in the Nets earning a dominant win over the Utah Jazz behind the stellar play of Kyrie Irving. It was the perfect win to build momentum as the league's hottest team in the Philadelphia 76ers was next up.
Only hours before the game, Irving was scratched from the lineup.
With no Dinwiddie, no Durant and no Irving, it would appear that the Nets would have no answer for the Sixers, who entered the night having won seven of their first eight.
Then Brooklyn reminded us of the depth that makes the team so special.
Coach Nash again tinkered with his team's lineup, inserting Caris LeVert to play alongside Bruce Brown Jr., Taurean Prince, Jeff Green and Jarrett Allen. While it was the ninth game of the Nets' season, it was just the second start for all members of the lineup except for Prince, who was making his third start of the year.
First Five 👇- Brooklyn Nets (@BrooklynNets) January 8, 2021
▪️ @_bigjayy_ #BrooklynTogether @newyorklottery pic.twitter.com/ti9xk4CaXg
The shakeup paid dividends.
Brooklyn got out to an early lead which proved sustainable as it entered the break with a 14-point lead thanks to a combined 33 points from LeVert (18) and Joe Harris (15).
Harris, who began the season in the starting unit, made his stamp on the game as a reserve, finishing with a game-high 28 points on 11-for-19 shooting from the field including 6-for-9 shooting from beyond the arc.
📼 Joey Buckets drains 6 threes to drop a season-high 28 📼 pic.twitter.com/Nr5b7etHI6- Brooklyn Nets (@BrooklynNets) January 8, 2021
LeVert, who began his season in the second unit, did a little bit of everything, finishing with 22 points, 10 assists, seven rebounds and was a team-high plus-23 in the box score.
📼 Another 20/10 night from @CarisLeVert 📼 pic.twitter.com/ZkmdVi7B51- Brooklyn Nets (@BrooklynNets) January 8, 2021
The result was an impressive 13-point win over a Sixers team that was only without one starter in Seth Curry. It wasn't a statement in a sense that it legitimized how good the Nets are but it was a statement that asserted how good the Nets can be and illustrated exactly why.
Integrating two stars of the magnitude of Durant and Irving is never easy, which is especially the case when there is a truncated training camp and preseason period. That the Nets got out to a hot start should not have been overreacted to, just as their subsequent shortcomings should have been viewed with a more sensible eye.
While the magnifying glass is placed on the wins and losses with the duo in the lineup, it might be more important to look at games when neither of them suits up.
On the Nets road to contend for a title, they know what they'll get from KD and Kyrie but what the team is figuring out is how they can get the most out of the supporting cast. Even with the injury to Dinwiddie, Brooklyn is one of the league's deepest teams, with a number of players that can start around the league.
As it showed in the win over the Sixers, it begins with Harris and LeVert, who will be looked upon to bear the offensive load when teams scheme to make things more difficult for Durant or Irving or in the event that either one of them - or both of them - are having an off night, although the chances of that happening in the same game are slim.
Finding the best role for Harris and LeVert is crucial for the Nets, as they need consistent contributions from the two. With respect to roles, it's becoming clearer and clearer that Jarrett Allen is best suited as the team's starting centre. The switch was seemingly inevitable but now that it has happened, it's a reminder that DeAndre Jordan can still find a way to contribute as a reserve, as he did with his 11 rebounds off the bench against Philadelphia.
From there, Brooklyn has a number of players, from Brown to Chris Chiozza to Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot to Landry Shamet, who will be relied upon to fulfill various roles throughout the season. In spots, they each have shown the capability to do so, meaning they should be ready for the moment when the stakes are even higher. And all of this is without mentioning second-year big man Nicolas Claxton, who showed flashes of being a difference-maker during his rookie campaign.
It's early. The Nets have looked good and the Nets have looked … not so good. But their ability to rely on their supporting cast to carry the load in big wins early on suggests that they'll be ready to execute their roles to perfection once the pursuit for a title intensifies.
The Nets' depth makes them a scary, scary team.
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