The Nets’ 119-115 rally over the Bucks on Friday night was pure preseason, nowhere near a high-drama rematch of their classic playoff series this past June. But the teams are developing the best rivalry in the Eastern Conference, and one of the best in the entire NBA.
The schedule-makers know it. That’s why the Nets will open the season Oct. 19 in Milwaukee — the reigning champion Bucks versus the team favored to dethrone them. Friday’s preseason game marked the first time the Nets had played at Barclays Center since their tough Game 7 overtime loss to the Bucks in the conference semifinals.
“There’s a chance for a rivalry to grow,” Nets head coach Steve Nash said. “After you play in the playoffs, typically there is some sort of seeds of rivalry no matter how the series goes. But to have such a close series, then to go on to win the NBA championship. The two top teams in the East. I think that has plenty of legs to develop a rivalry.”
The Nets were missing Kyrie Irving (vaccine mandates) and Paul Millsap (health and safety protocols). Milwaukee was even more threadbare, down nine players, including Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton. But it was still a fun game with plenty of energy, and the Nets’ youngsters leading Brooklyn to the win.
“Yeah it was really professional for some young guys,” Nash said. “They defended well. There was three, four defenders out there. That group did the hard work defensively to give themselves an opportunity to stay in the game and then offensively we were able to get the buckets when it counted but toughness over everything with that group.”
Kevin Durant had 18 points and six rebounds in his preseason debut. James Harden — who suffered a Grade 2 hamstring injury Game 1 of that second-round loss, missed most of the series and spent much of the offseason rehabbing — looked rusty in his first preseason action. He scored eight points on 3-for-9 shooting, adding four assists and three turnovers.
“It felt kinda … very, very, very weird, not kind of weird moving around, playing against another team,” Harden said. “Practice is different obviously, but just being on the court and having to move felt weird. But I’ll get adjusted to it.”
Jevon Carter had 13 points, LaMarcus Aldridge had 12, and Cam Thomas hit a couple of big shots down the stretch.
The Nets led, 98-95, when Nash pulled his veteran second unit. Milwaukee went on 14-4 run for a 109-102 edge, but the Nets’ youngsters showed some grit in closing with a 17-6 finish.
Thomas’ 19-foot step-back put the Nets ahead 112-111 with a minute remaining. After Seton Hall product Sandro Mamukelashvili missed a 3-pointer, Thomas drilled one of his own for a four-point cushion with a half-minute left. The Nets never trailed again.
“They’ve been playing extremely well, especially in practice. They listen, they go out they work your butts off, from top to bottom, and its showing,” Harden said.
“It’s easy to go out there and just play selfish basketball, but they’ve been a really good in a sense of defensively communicating, and then offensively knowing who to get the ball to, and they’re showing in L.A., in practice they do it every day, and then [Friday] as well.”
Jordan Nwora led Milwaukee with a game-high 30 points, while Elijah Bryant had 21 and Mamukelashvili 20.
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