The Brooklyn Nets were not successful in their first game without Kevin Durant, losing by 11 points to the Celtics after competing for the first three quarters. Brooklyn is a lethal offensive team with Durant and Kyrie Irving, but on nights such as Thursday, when Irving was off (9-for-24 shooting), Brooklyn is going to have to find other scoring sources.
T.J. Warren has proven to be a capable scorer, but he’s not a 3-point shooter and the Nets need more offensive help. Ben Simmons doesn’t appear ready to help in that category. As has been his reputation, Simmons passed up several opportunities to shoot against Boston, throwing errant passes to teammates who were expecting him to shoot.
Brooklyn coach Jacque Vaughn is as optimistic as they come, but even he has to be concerned about how the Nets are going to score. The Nets lined their roster with shooters, but players such as Joe Harris and Seth Curry are more spot scorers than players who can respond with 20 points consistently while Durant is gone for about a month.
“It’s going to be a balance, [Kyrie] is not going to play 12 minutes in a row like Kevin did in the first quarter, so you have to have someone who can score when [Kyrie] is on the bench. T.J. can do that,” Vaughn said. “We want to use Ben as a facilitator, have Ben push the pace for us.
“The biggest part about Kevin’s shots are we don’t want other people shooting the twos that he was shooting. He was so efficient at it. So, we’re going to have to shoot more threes. So, who allows us to shoot more threes? Hopefully, Ben pushing it to a shooter in transition.”
Durant is the one of the best maker of difficult shots in the NBA. He makes hard shots look easy, and that can’t be replaced. Vaughn has to find a combination that scores but also doesn’t take shots that are out of their profiles.
Harris and Curry are catch-and-shoot 3-point shooters. They need more help from a facilitator to score. Warren is a midrange shooter. Royce O’Neale can occasionally score, but he’s more of a three-and-defense player.
“We’ll have to maximize the shots that we take,” Vaughn said. “Do we want to shoot more threes? Probably from the individuals who are high-level 3-point shooters. That goes back to creating shots for other guys. Our ability to drive and kick a little bit more. Kevin has the incredible ability to turning some ugly possessions into pretty possessions because of his ability to shoot the basketball. We’ll have to get away from turning the basketball over. There’s some areas where we can pick up loose change a little bit, but we don’t want three or four dudes thinking they can shoot the same twos that Kevin shot.
“And the defensive piece, we’ll scheme a little bit differently. You’ll see a little bit more variety at the defensive end of the floor.”
Irving didn’t try to carry the load against the Celtics. He picked his moments, but there are going to be nights when they need 40-point Kyrie. And he’ll have to figure out when those nights are.
Irving is playing for a contract, trying to prove he can be reliable, on and off the floor, so these next few weeks without the security of Durant will be important for him.
“We want to not put more pressure on Kyrie than he had three games ago; it’s the same approach with this group,” Vaughn said. “Is it going to be more of a discipline from the rest of the group to do things? Because Kevin bailed us out a lot of times. We’re going to have to be tighter on both ends of the floor, but no more pressure should be on Kyrie.
“His ability to create double teams, which will happen, and create for other guys, his ability to play one-on-one at times is still going to be here. But we added nothing to the playbook to put any more on his plate.”
Simmons poses a major issue because of his disinterest in shooting and how that makes the Nets easier to defend.
Simmons finished Thursday’s game with 0 points, 9 rebounds, and 13 assists. And it looked to even the most novice of basketball fans that he is reluctant shooter (three shots in 26 minutes). Simmons is a plus defender and passer, but one of the reasons he made the All-Star team in Philadelphia was his ability to score at the rim.
“I think we all know Ben can impact the game without scoring,” Vaughn said. “It puts the onus on him to produce on each possession at both ends of the floor. It’s going to put more on him defensively, I think that’s where we’re going to ask more of him because Kevin isn’t there. I’m not going to ask him to score any more than he has. I think he loves to facilitate and that’s good for our group.
“Can he get Joe Harris another three? Can he get Seth another two threes to make up for the difference without changing the way he’s plays.”
Simmons said he realizes he has to be more aggressive offensively. He hasn’t been the same player since he passed up a shot in favor of a forced pass to Matisse Thybulle in Game 7 of the 2021 Eastern Conference semifinals.
He’s taken more than a year recovering from back surgery to get comfortable on the court, but he’s almost forgot how to shoot. Also, he’s connecting on a career-low 41.3 percent from the free throw line, so there appears to be a hesitancy to attack the rim and get fouled in the act of shooting.
“Pushing the ball, finding my guys, but I probably found them too much,” Simmons said of his 13 assists Thursday. “Probably needed to get my own, get myself going, which I didn’t. But I’m playing with a lot of guys who like to catch and shoot. I’ve given the ball up way too many times when I know I can and I need to get to the rim, get buckets. And that’s also going to help my teammates.”
When asked if he needed to score more with Durant sidelined, Simmons said, “I wouldn’t call it pressure, it’s something I need to do. It’s one less player that gets open. Kevin can score at will against anybody. But us, collectively, we’ve got to understand that and play with pace.”
Defensively, the Nets have been much improved since Vaughn took over for Steve Nash. Durant was also an impactful defender because of his ability to block shots and defend in the post. That puts more of an onus on center Nic Claxton, who is becoming more comfortable in his prominent role and as the Nets mold him into a role similar to the one filled by the Celtics’ Robert Williams.
“It definitely puts some more pressure on him,” Vaughn said of Claxton. “With Kevin back there they would cover for each other. Schematically, we’ll do some things to help Nic be closer to the rim at times. But he’ll still guard some perimeter players.
“What sometimes gets overlooked is the defense [Durant] gave us on the other end.”
RUMBLINGS IN OKLAHOMA CITY
Rebuilt Thunder on verge of bursting forth
Not only did Oklahoma City trounce the Celtics without leading scorer Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, but the Thunder won Thursday at Philadelphia and are unquestionably a team on the rise with a slew of draft picks.
Coach Mark Daigneault is a Leominster native and Emerson College graduate who was hand-picked by general manager Sam Presti, another Emerson alum, to lead the Thunder to the next level.
The Thunder are on the outskirts of the play-in this season, and a few more wins could put them in real contention. And their ascension is occurring without No. 2 overall pick Chet Holmgren, the lanky big man who injured his foot during a summer collision with LeBron James and is out for the season.
Still, Gilgeous-Alexander, who is a sure-fire first-time All-Star, Australian product Josh Giddey, and rookie Jalen Williams have helped turn Oklahoma City back into a competitive club.
The rise has been years in the making. Presti dismantled the team that reached the 2016 Western Conference finals, with Kevin Durant signing with Golden State and Russell Westbrook being traded to Houston.
Presti has stacked draft picks and lottery picks while the losing continued. The organization is just beginning to reap the benefits of Presti’s work.
The Thunder’s young group has experienced some difficult on-the-job training in losing 108 games the previous two years, but they have responded with an impressive upsurge.
“I think most of [the growth] has been with this particular team,” Daigneault said. “The nucleus of this team has grown upward over the past couple of years. And I think learning these guys, learning this particular team, that’s one of the benefits of continuity.
“I have been in the organization before. That wasn’t new. I have been a head coach before. That wasn’t new. It was more what it looked like with these guys and that’s been the coolest thing and not only me, the whole coaching staff is pretty much intact. The continuity has been put together is probably where we experienced the most growth.”
Who could be on Celtics’ shopping list?
The Celtics are about a month from the NBA trade deadline. While they added the necessary depth to become the league’s best team at the midway point, there is speculation the club could try to upgrade by adding a defensive-minded wing player or big man.
Here are a list of potential candidates for the Celtics through trade or free agency. The Celtics have a trade exception created by the Dennis Schröder deal and also could move Danilo Gallinari’s contract to acquire more help.
▪ Jakob Poeltl: The Spurs center will be a free agent after this season and Gregg Popovich may be open to getting assets since his team is headed for the draft lottery. The question for the Celtics is whether they want Poeltl to carve into the playing time of Al Horford, or perhaps they would split Poeltl and Robert Williams with Horford. The Celtics would have to package a few players for Poeltl because of his $9 million salary, making a trade unlikely. The Schröder trade exception is $5.8 million, so that wouldn’t work for Poeltl.
▪ Derrick Jones Jr.: If the Bulls decide to be sellers, Jones could be a nice addition because he would fit into the trade exception and he is a freakishly athletic three-and-defense player who could be the wing the Celtics have been looking for. Jones has a player option for next season at $3.3 million, so he would not strain the Celtics’ salary cap. He gives them the athleticism that Javonte Green gave them a few years ago. The Bulls are on a downturn and could decide to make major moves with their nucleus.
▪ DeMarcus Cousins: Cousins has worked out for the Lakers and wants back in the NBA. The Celtics would have to think deeply about whether this is the right move. But they do need toughness, a space-eating big man, and someone who would fit in with the chemistry of a team chasing a championship. Blake Griffin has been a welcome addition in the locker room but probably isn’t as playable as the Celtics envisioned. Cousins has been a solid addition in his previous few stops and wouldn’t be afraid to protect the paint or lay a hard foul.
▪ Mike Muscala: The Oklahoma City stretch-4 has a team option for next season at $3.5 million, and Brad Stevens and Sam Presti have made deals in the past. Muscala has dealt with injuries the past few years, but he has remained healthy this season and is shooting 37.4 percent from the 3-point line in a reserve role. Presti could view Muscala as an asset to get some second-round pick or trade capital, since he’s not likely part of the team’s future. For the Celtics, Muscala could fill that Gallinari role as a floor-stretcher to pair with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
▪ Jae Crowder: Crowder is likely too expensive for the Celtics to acquire via trade with the Suns, but he could be an intriguing buyout candidate if the Suns can’t work out a deal for the disgruntled former Celtic. While his 3-point shooting has tailed off from his Miami years, Crowder is a solid defender who plays with an edge and loved being a Celtic. You’d have to think Boston could be on his list if he could pick his next team.
The WNBA announced Las Vegas as its host for the 2023 All-Star Game. What makes this unique is the game coincides with NBA Summer League, which will be held July 6-16. The WNBA has long wanted more attention and prestige for its midsummer classic and hosting it with NBA executives, players, and media in town will add attention and publicity. The Las Vegas Summer League serves as a NBA convention of sorts with current and former players, team executives, and coaches converge to make deals, scout players, and watch recent draft picks . . . The Pacers were dealt a blow when All-Star candidate Tyrese Haliburton suffered an elbow sprain and left knee contusion during a loss to the Knicks. Haliburton was the primary source behind Indiana’s surprising start. The Pacers went into the weekend tied with the Knicks for sixth in the Eastern Conference, meaning they are likely not to be sellers at the trade deadline. The question many NBA executives are trying to figure out is exactly which teams will be sellers. The Magic have crept to three games behind the 10th-place Bulls for the final play-in spot, meaning there are likely 12 teams vying for those 10 spots, with the Pistons and Hornets planning for the lottery. The Magic could get former top-10 pick Jonathan Isaac back in the coming weeks. Isaac tore his ACL in the bubble in August 2020 and hasn’t played in a NBA game since. He was sent to G League Lakeland in his final step toward a return and scored 15 points in his first game. Isaac makes the Magic an even more mammoth team. Orlando’s size has given the Celtics issues with Paolo Banchero, Moritz Wagner, Franz Wagner, Bol Bol, Mo Bamba, and now Isaac. The Magic have lived in the draft lottery over the past decade and are now starting to reap the benefits. Whether Isaac can regain his pre-injury form is still in question, but the Magic are relieved he’s finally returning after nearly 30 months of rehabilitation . . . The Hawks signed former lottery pick Derrick Favors to a 10-day contract. Although Favors has been in the NBA for 12 years, he’s only 31 and could give a contender some quality minutes.
Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.