The new-look Brooklyn Nets passed their first test Saturday with a 122-115 victory over the Orlando Magic.
Playing together for the first time since Game 5 of the 2012 NBA Finals with the Oklahoma City Thunder, James Harden and Kevin Durant got the chance to prove they would have no issues sharing the ball. Kyrie Irving, the third member of Brooklyn's Big Three, was unavailable because of the NBA's health and safety protocols.
Harden came alive in the second half to finish with a triple-double of 32 points, a season-high 14 assists and 12 rebounds. Durant led all players with 42 points, his highest-scoring game since dropping 46 on the Houston Rockets in Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals.
The Magic have dropped five straight games since starting the season 6-2. Nikola Vucevic played well in defeat with 34 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists.
Notable Game Stats
- James Harden (BKN): 32 points (8-of-18 FG), 14 assists, 12 rebounds
- Kevin Durant (BKN): 42 points (16-of-26 FG), 5 assists, 4 rebounds
- Joe Harris (BKN): 17 points (4-of-9 3-pt FG)
- Nikola Vucevic (ORL): 34 points (14-of-22 FG), 10 rebounds, 7 assists
- Cole Anthony (ORL): 16 points (6-of-15 FG), 8 assists
- Aaron Gordon (ORL): 11 points (4-of-11 FG), 6 assists, 6 rebounds
Harden Shows Rust, Upside in Nets Debut
Even though the hype around Harden's debut was off the charts, the reality suggested there could be some struggles out of the gate.
For starters, Harden was trying to learn a new system and get accustomed to new teammates and had just two days between the trade and the game. His conditioning this season has been the subject of discussion, something he jokingly acknowledged during his introductory press conference Friday:
All of that suggested Harden would take time before looking like the three-time scoring champion and 2017-18 NBA MVP in Brooklyn.
While this won't go down as the best game of Harden's career. He did make some plays against the Magic that suggested good things are coming, including his first basket with the Nets, which left Khem Birch scrambling to figure out what happened:
Unlike the situation Harden left in Houston, where he had to be great on a nightly basis for the team to have a chance, the Nets proved Saturday that they can get by when he's merely serviceable.
Durant got off to a slow start, making just one of his first four shots before rebounding to finish 16-of-26 from the field. Harden was happy to take advantage of the two-time NBA Finals MVP's scoring ability.
It also shouldn't be overlooked how valuable Joe Harris is to this version of the Nets. He's long been one of the best catch-and-shoot players in the NBA on three-point attempts. Having Durant and Harden attract so much attention is only going to leave him open for more opportunities.
The Magic were an ideal first opponent for this Brooklyn team. They have been good enough to sit at the top of the Southeast Division despite a 6-6 record and were playing the second night of a back-to-back after a 124-97 loss to the Boston Celtics on Friday night.
The lingering questions about what the Nets defense will become didn't go away with this performance. Orlando, which entered the day ranked 27th in offensive rating and 28th in points per game, went punch for punch with Brooklyn and dropped 33 points in the third quarter.
There will be better days ahead, but a win is a win for a Nets team that has had little time to play together to establish chemistry and figure out what will work.
Vucevic's Dominant Effort Can't Lift Magic
The Magic have been in free fall since starting the season with four consecutive wins. They have lost seven of their past nine games to drop under .500 (6-7) for the first time in 2020-21.
There were already issues with the offense before Markelle Fultz's season came to an end Jan. 6 when he tore his ACL against the Cleveland Cavaliers, but it's especially pronounced now that they are relying on rookie Cole Anthony as their starting point guard.
Orlando had been held under 100 points in losing each of its past four games entering Saturday's matchup with the Nets.
Despite the recent struggles for the team, Nikola Vucevic remains a bright spot. The 30-year-old came into the game averaging 21.9 points and shooting 50.0 from the field and 41.4 percent from three.
Those numbers will go up after Vucevic's performance against the Nets. He was almost singlehandedly keeping the game close when it looked like Brooklyn was on the verge of pulling away in the fourth quarter.
Andy Bailey @AndrewDBailey
box plus/minus leaderboard 1-Nikola Jokic (10.7) 2-Nikola Vucevic (8.7) 3-Chris Boucher and Luka Doncic (7.4) 5-Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving (7.3) 7-Anthony Davis (6.8) 8-CJ McCollum (6.6) 9-Karl-Anthony Towns (6.4) 10-Joel Embiid (6.3) https://t.co/a73LL5t2er https://t.co/HWUdHFU338
If the Magic are going to make any noise in the Eastern Conference this season, Vucevic will be the reason why. The team as presently constructed has many flaws and isn't good enough to compete for one of the top spots in the playoff race, but it has been able to cause problems for elite teams in the playoffs the past two seasons.
No one has taken control of the Southeast Division, so the Magic are still tied with the Charlotte Hornets for the top spot despite being under .500.
The Nets will host the Milwaukee Bucks on Monday at 7:30 p.m. ET. The Magic will continue their five-game road trip Monday against the New York Knicks at noon ET.