One of the lead stories around the NBA this week has been: How will the Brooklyn Nets look without Kevin Durant?
The league got its first look Thursday as the Nets dropped their opening game of the Durantless stretch 109-98 to the league-leading Boston Celtics. Brooklyn didn’t play a poor game by any stretch of the imagination. They led Boston by as many as nine and controlled the game for the majority of the first half.
Kyrie Irving struggled again against his former team, shooting 9 of 24 from the field and 3 of 11 from three in the loss. The guard has been unable to find his stroke against Boston as of late, averaging 17.8 points on 33 of 85 (38.8 percent) shooting in his last five appearances outside of a Game 1 outburst in last year’s playoffs.
But the story of Thursday’s loss was one of the strangest performances you will ever see from Nets big man Ben Simmons. The 26-year-old went scoreless on 0 of 3 shooting while posting 9 rebounds and 13 assists on his way to a team-high plus-10. Despite Simmons not registering a point, Brooklyn’s offense through three quarters was at its best with the former All-Star pushing the pace and finding teammates in transition.
However, with Brooklyn searching for scoring in the fourth, Simmons’ passivity proved a detriment. The Aussie passed up an open layup early in the period leading to a turnover and was quickly pulled after.
Ben Simmons passes up on a layup attempt against Luke Kornet 😬 pic.twitter.com/PV3TO1TrfR
— ClutchPoints (@ClutchPointsApp) January 13, 2023
The Nets would muster just 16 points in the final frame as the Celtics took control of the game early in the period. And Simmons had a strong take postgame when asked how he can get himself going offensively.
“Just being assertive and being aggressive and knowing that my team needs that,” Simmons said. “I think I’m giving the ball up way too many times when I know who I am, I know I need to get to the rim and get buckets. And that’s also going to help my teammates and get them going.”
Ben Simmons after going scoreless on just 3 shots in tonight’s loss:
“I think I’m giving the ball up way too many times when I know who I am, I know I need to get to the rim and get buckets.“ pic.twitter.com/OdISzQvpVC
— Erik Slater (@erikslater_) January 13, 2023
Simmons’ lack of aggressiveness by the numbers is glaring this season. The three-time All-Star is averaging just 3.2 drives per game after posting 10.0 or more in each of his first four seasons. Those numbers are even more dramatic as games progress. The former number one pick is averaging 1.1 points on just 0.6 shots per game in fourth quarters this year.
This hasn’t hurt Brooklyn with Durant and Irving exploding offensively during a recent hot stretch. But with Durant out, the Nets will be in severe need of offensive creation down the stretch of games. Nights like Thursday where Simmons attempts just three shots aren’t going to cut it against better competition.
Despite this, Irving said the team isn’t putting pressure on Simmons to change his mindset with Durant sidelined.
“He’s just gotta be himself. We’re not gonna put too much pressure on him,” Irving said. “We’re not gonna let this one particular game or any other games where he scored eight points, four points, it doesn’t matter. It’s all on us as a team to collectively put points on the board, and when he gets his opportunities, we just want him to be aggressive.”
Irving’s struggles and Simmons’ passive second half came despite a high-level performance from Brooklyn’s supporting cast. Joe Harris broke out of recent struggles, scoring 18 points on 7 of 11 shooting from the field and 4 of 7 from three. T.J. Warren added 20 points on 9 of 18 shooting off the bench and Seth Curry chipped in 11 on 4 of 9 shooting.
The loss is the Nets’ third in their last 21 games. Brooklyn will look to get back in the win column when they play host to Oklahoma City Sunday.