The Brooklyn Nets were embarrassed by the New Orleans Pelicans Wednesday in their season opener. Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant and more spoke throughout the preseason about the team’s need to show greater resiliency than last season, and that’s exactly what they did Friday night.
Brooklyn bounced back to grab their first win of the season 109-105 over a talented Toronto Raptors squad. The Nets fought back from a 10-point second-half deficit in the victory. Here are four takeaways from their performance:
Kyrie Irving takes over
It was the Kyrie Irving show down the stretch Friday. Irving scored 13 fourth-quarter points, halting several Toronto runs and carrying his team to a win. The guard scored on three straight possessions midway through the quarter to keep Brooklyn in front. When the Raptors tied the game with 1:46 remaining, Irving responded with a tough stepback jumper late in the shot clock.
Beautiful shot-making in the clutch by Kyrie Irving pic.twitter.com/uhcPsStJpo
— Kevin O'Connor (@KevinOConnorNBA) October 22, 2022
The seven-time All-Star finished with 30 points and seven assists on 11-of-24 shooting. When asked what it took for Brooklyn to come out with the win, Irving had a direct response with the home crowd listening.
“It took not being soft, honestly,” Irving said. “We've been coming out too soft sometimes, and basketball is meant to be played at a high level of intensity. And our fans will let us know it if we're not playing hard enough, so I appreciate that. It just makes us want to go harder.”
Ben Simmons shows improvement
The takeaway from Ben Simmons’ Nets debut Wednesday was his extreme passivity. Simmons took just three shots, two of which were lobs, and did little on either end to put his imprint on the game.
Simmons’ mindset Friday was noticeably more aggressive from the jump. The point guard opened the game looking to get downhill and put pressure on the defense. He hit his first two shots, one a sweeping right-handed hook and the other creating space off a drive for a floater.
Simmons finished with six points, ten rebounds, eight assists and two blocks. Head Coach Steve Nash said the three-time All-Star’s aggressiveness was an improvement from opening night.
“A step up from Ben. From the jump he was more aggressive,” Nash said. “Got in the paint. Every time he gets in the paint he causes problems. Ten rebounds, eight assists, couple blocks. He’s starting to show the player he can be and I think he’s still got a ways to go. Really proud of him. He shook off a first night and I thought was much more aggressive.”
The most encouraging play from Simmons’ performance came when crossed over Christian Koloko and found a cutting Nic Claxton for a dunk.
The cross. The fake. The pass. The SLAM!
— NBA (@NBA) October 22, 2022
Simmons’ burst and suddenness on the crossover is something he had not shown before tonight. Brooklyn’s success, or lack thereof, with Simmons in the game Friday was simple: when he was getting downhill – whether off the dribble, short roll, or on the break – good things happened. When he was aimlessly roaming the perimeter, the offense felt forced.
There were several moments Friday when Simmons left a lot to be desired. However, his aggressive mindset from the opening tip was something he had yet to show in a Nets uniform and offers an encouraging sign moving forward.
Nic Claxton provides the spark
Brooklyn expected a significant jump from fourth-year center Nic Claxton when they signed him to a two-year, $17 million contract this offseason. The 23-year-old delivered in a big way Friday night.
Claxton posted 19 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks on 8-of-11 shooting in the win. The big man scored 13 points in the second half, sparking a run in the third to put Brooklyn in front and making several key plays in the fourth to quell a Toronto comeback. Claxton said postgame that he has a different feeling on the floor in his fourth season.
“I'm just more comfortable, more confident,” he said. “We need other guys to step up. We can’t have Kyrie and KD trying to do everything. Just playing my game and my teammates are doing a good job of instilling confidence in me.”
Claxton, who played point guard growing up, has flashed his ball-handling ability through two games, something he had not shown often in his first three seasons. The big man found success Friday attacking the rim in the halfcourt and transition. Claxton broke out a smooth euro-step on the fast break with Brooklyn making a run late in the third quarter.
When asked if his teammates knew he had that move in his skillset, Claxton said they were now put on notice.
“I don’t know, but they know now,” he said. “That's something that I continue to work on and it felt good bringing it out today. When I got it in transition I kind of knew I was gonna go to a euro of some sort, it was me one-on-one and nobody can stop me in the open court.”
Claxton has already emerged as one of the top perimeter-defending big men in the league. His development as a transition scorer and rebounder is a significant storyline to monitor for Brooklyn.
Royce O'Neale comes up big when it counts
The Nets made a win-now move when they traded a first-round pick to the Utah Jazz for Royce O'Neale this summer. O'Neale carved out a valuable role as a three-and-D wing for a Utah team that made the playoffs in each of the last three seasons. The 29-year-old's skillset was one Brooklyn desperately needed down the stretch of last season.
O'Neale struggled for nearly the entire game Friday, but came up clutch on Brooklyn's final possession. Up by one point with 16 seconds remaining, the veteran drained a dagger three after Irving found him off a double team. Kevin Durant hit a three the possession prior with the game tied. The ball then found its way to O'Neale to put the game away and Durant said the Nets trust their new teammate in the big spot.
“We're confident in Royce,” Durant said. “We know what he can bring to the table. That three was huge. I love that shot by him. We're going to need more of that from him and he knows that we trust him so he was able to shoot that shot with confidence.”
— Brooklyn Nets (@BrooklynNets) October 22, 2022
Brooklyn's schedule does not get any easier after a tough test from the Raptors. The Nets hit the road for matchups with Memphis and Milwaukee early next week.