MEMPHIS — What’s chemistry to a team with two of the greatest scorers in NBA history?
A make-or-break test on the way to a championship.
The Nets were short three rotation players in Wednesday’s matchup against the West’s second-best Grizzlies: Seth Curry (left ankle) and Goran Dragic (left knee) were late scratches and LaMarcus Aldridge continues to miss time with a gimpy right hip.
But with Kevin Durant on one end and Kyrie Irving on the other, that’s not supposed to matter.
Especially not against a Grizzlies team without superstar sensation Ja Morant.
The Grizzlies and Nets, however, are not the same: While the Nets spiraled from first in the East to eighth in the conference after Durant’s mid-season MCL sprain, Memphis improved to a 15-2 in games without Morant (knee soreness) in their 132-120 victory over the Nets on Wednesday.
“It’s a new group. I think we’re still learning each other,” said Nets head coach Steve Nash. “It was a great experience for us. That’s how teams are gonna beat us. … It’s a lesson. It’s an opportunity for us to see what the playoffs look like.”
“Talent. They have a talented, balanced roster. Our roster’s built on three stars. When they’re out, it puts a big strain on guys playing roles that they haven’t played before.”
It’s a testament to the effective roster building by Grizzlies GM Zach Kleiman, and to the coaching and player development from head coach Taylor Jenkins.
And it’s why the news that Irving will be eligible to play at Barclays Center beginning with Sunday’s home matchup against the Charlotte Hornets may make them the most exciting team in the Eastern Conference.
But they are still behind teams like the Milwaukee Bucks and Miami Heat in the race to the Eastern Conference crown.
Irving and Durant were spectacular in Memphis, trading baskets like it was a game on the blacktop. The two superstars combined for 78 points and lifted the Nets out of a first-half deficit that ballooned as large as 17 points.
Basketball, however, is more than a two-man game, more than a game of pickup at the park, as evidenced by the Grizzlies’ success without their top player.
As Morant watched from the sidelines, occasionally trash-talking Durant from the bench with a decked out white gold chain hanging from his neck, seven of his teammates scored in double figures.
“They’ve got a deep team. They’ve got a lot of athletic guys. They run fast and in this building, they play with a lot of confidence,” said Durant, who finished with 35 points, 11 rebounds, eight assists, two blocks and two steals. “I think 1-10 in their rotation is just solid players. Ja is a superstar of their team, but they’ve got guys that can pretty much start on a lot of teams in this league. Their front office did a great job of putting this team together.”
It’s not just the points, either, but how the Grizzlies amassed them. They outrebounded the Nets and turned those boards into transition threes. Memphis’ three-point shooters also double as lockdown defenders: Desmond Bane shot 6-of-10 from downtown, but took his turn guarding both Durant and Irving.
Dillon Brooks also hit a pair of threes while bringing physicality to the defensive end. And in Morant’s absence, De’Anthony Melton hit six threes off the bench for 23 points.
The Grizzlies’ performance spoiled Irving’s night: Wednesday was his 30th birthday, and it was the day reports surfaced of mayor Adams’ intentions of ending the private sector vaccine mandate to no longer restrict unvaccinated athletes and entertainers from performing in local arenas.
It was also a night the Grizzlies reminded the Nets they need more than just starpower to win big. Memphis substantiated itself as a championship contender as their superstar guard nursed a knee injury.
“They just play free,” said Irving, who tallied 43 points and eight assists. “They play free and they move the basketball, and Desmond Bane does a great job staying aggressive and picking his spots and they really get to that three-point line, and if the three is not working, second-chance points is really a staple of their offense and we gave up 27 points on fast break. So things we could have controlled tonight we didn’t.”
Meanwhile the Nets, who had won six of seven games entering Wednesday, were on the receiving end of a harsh reality check.
It takes more than just talent to win in this league. It takes chemistry, continuity, some luck and some skill. The Nets have the talent, loads of it, but it’s unclear whether that talent can compensate for the areas they lack.
On Wednesday, it didn’t, and the road to a championship is a lot harsher than a Grizzles team without their best player.
Source: Berkshire mont