Kyrie Irving may have walked back his comments about winning with this current group of Nets, but it didn't make earning a victory any easier, as the Milwaukee Bucks pulled off a 117-97 victory in Brooklyn on Saturday.
The star point guard was at the center of another NBA controversy this week after saying the Nets needed "one or two more pieces" to fit in with Kevin Durant, DeAndre Jordan, Garrett Temple, Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert. That left many wondering where Irving believes teammates Taurean Prince, Jarrett Allen and Wilson Chandler—all role pieces in their own right—fit into the Nets' future.
By the end of the week, Irving was trying to clarify just what he meant by that but refused to temper his expectations.
"I'm going to continue to push," Irving told the media Friday. "I'm going to continue to demand greatness out of myself and demand greatness out of my teammates and we go from there. If it's harsh as a leader or too much for anybody, if you're not in our locker room, stay the f--k out. It's as simple as that."
Whether Irving's mea culpa worked, it didn't translate to success on the court. Facing a championship-caliber Bucks team many contending teams use as a measuring stick, the Nets folded at home.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, PF, Bucks: 29 points, 12 rebounds, four assists
Khris Middleton, SF, Bucks: 20 points, four rebounds, four assists
Kyrie Irving, PG, Nets: 17 points, six rebounds, six assists
Spencer Dinwiddie, PG, Nets: 11 points, three assists, three rebounds
Giannis Flourishes Despite Foul Trouble
The nightly routine of Giannis Antetokounmpo logging jaw-dropping numbers while barely breaking a sweat will stop registering as unnatural at some point.
Saturday was not that night. Not with Antetokounmpo picking up two early fouls and navigating around them for his fifth game of 29 points or more in his last six outings. How the reigning MVP pulled it off was just as remarkable.
The Greek Freak went 12-for-20 from the field with seven of his makes away from the basket—including two three-pointers. This wasn't Giannis speeding his way into the paint and outmuscling defenders. Antetokounmpo had no choice but to play a more finesse style as the Bucks won big.
It was nearly Irving picking up two fouls early, but a wise challenge from the Nets reversed a block call on the guard and instead ruled a charge on Antetokounmpo. What should have been a fortunate stroke of luck for Brooklyn quickly became irrelevant. Antetokounmpo showed again why Milwaukee (38-6) is the team to beat.
Even when the Bucks stumble, they're still unlikely to slow down. Not on the road. Not against the Nets.
Kyrie's Core Falls Flat
It wasn't just Irving who had the spotlight on him this week. By way of singling out Dinwiddie and LeVert, he made sure the focus would be on how the trio handles the floor together and individually. For a Nets team that Irving believes needs the trio in order to build a core with Durant and Jordan, Saturday's showing against a team with a fully developed first string did little to spark excitement.
Irving, Dinwiddie and LeVert combined to shoot 12-of-40 from the floor with five three-pointers. They tallied 34 points total—managing to outscore a foul-trouble-managing Antetokounmpo by just five—and were minus-32 on a night they lost by 20. Irving was cold from outside and useless from mid-range on his own, making just one layup on the evening.
That's not to say anyone on the Nets (18-23) will come away from Saturday looking good, but it goes to show how much work is needed. It doesn't mean Irving was right or wrong in his comments, either. It means they may be beside the point at the moment.
Without Durant—who's expected to miss the season as he recovers from an Achilles injury—it's impossible to gauge just what the Nets have on their roster. Irving potentially alienating teammates who could remain key players in their retooling may turn out to be a massive backfire.
Time will tell. In any case, Saturday was less than promising for a Nets trio Irving brought so much trouble on himself for singling out. That spotlight won't be going anywhere. It'll only grow as a middling Brooklyn team either returns to the playoffs or falls off entirely.
For the Nets, Saturday marked the first contest in a three-game stretch against some of the league's biggest threats to win a title this season. After taking on the Bucks, Brooklyn welcomes the Philadelphia 76ers to town Monday before the Los Angeles Lakers pay a visit Thursday. Any sustained success will go a long way toward changing the narrative after Irving's comments.
As for the Bucks, they'll return home to face the Chicago Bulls on Monday before heading overseas to face the Charlotte Hornets in Paris on Friday.