With all due respect to the Celtics and Sixers, the Nets and Bucks now look like the two best teams in the Eastern Conference.
Brooklyn and Milwaukee met in a nationally televised game Monday night that served as a potential preview of the Eastern Conference Finals.
And led by James Harden and Kevin Durant, the Nets came out on top, 125-123, behind a combined 64 points from their dynamic duo. Brooklyn (9-6) has won four straight and is now a perfect 2-0 in the Harden/Durant Era as they await the return of Kyrie Irving for Wednesday’s game in Cleveland.
“James and Kevin together is a deadly duo,” head coach Steve Nash said on TNT.
The Nets duo out-scored the Bucks duo of Giannis and Khris Middleton, who combined for 59 points, and if you ask former Net Richard Jefferson, the Nets are now the team to beat in the East.
Harden and Durant continued to put up video-game type numbers in their second game together after last week’s blockbuster trade that brought Harden over from Houston.
One game after going for the first 30-point triple-double in a debut in NBA history, Harden finished with 34 points, 12 assists and six rebounds, while Durant had 30 points, nine rebounds and six assists. Joe Harris went for 20 points including a big late three-pointer.
Harden and Durant have combined for 138 points in their first two games, the second most by any pair of teammates in their first two games, along with 37 assists. They are the first pair of teammates ever to each score 30 points or better in their first two games.
“It’s a huge win for us,” Harden said. “This is our second game together and we haven’t had one practice.
“We’re just trying to learn on on the fly. This was going to be a challenge for us, and I think we held our own.”
Both Harden and Durant believe they’re smarter and more experienced now than they were in Oklahoma City when they reached the NBA Finals in 2012.
“I think the IQ more than anything,” Durant said. “Our games and our skills, they speak for themselves. But as far as knowing what our coaches want and what we’re expected to do, we can handle it a little bit better now.”
Harden said he and Durant are both older and that they’re now working to complement each other more than compete with one another.
“We were young in Oklahoma City, we’re grown men now,” Harden said. “We know what we want, we really know the game of basketball now. We’re not those young guys that just run around and want to just shoot and dunk all day. We know spots, we know team’s plays. We’re more advanced.
“And then for me, as I sit back, I know what type of player Kevin Durant is. He’s one of the best players to ever touch a basketball. He’s God-given, 7 foot, can basically do everything so for me it’s not trying to compete with that, it’s allowing Kevin to be the best Kevin he can be and I’m going to make sure that I can make him better and make my teammates better because at the end of the day that’s all that matters.”
Nash and his players said the team must still improve defensively while cutting down on turnovers.
“We have to improve defensively, that’s a difficult team to defend,” Nash said. “That’s something that’s no question gotta improve.”
They had 17 turnovers against the Bucks after committing 15 against Orlando.
Imagine what this team could look like if they do cut down on their turnovers and improve their defense going forward?
Then they really could be a favorite coming out of the East.
“We’re not having any parades, we’ve got a lot of work to do,” Nash said. “We got tons of work to do, we’re grateful for the victory….But we gotta keep building.”
And that building will continue when Irving returns.
“As far as Ky, I’m excited to have him back,” Nash said. “To have him back in the building tomorrow will be exciting. …It’s a great puzzle to put together and try to figure out how we can be the most efficient.”
For now, the Nets sent a warning signal across the bow of the Bucks and gave a preview of what could be an entertaining Eastern Conference Finals.