The story behind the Brooklyn Nets’ season opener against the New Orleans Pelicans was the long-anticipated returns of two former number one picks.
Ben Simmons and Zion Williamson took the floor for the first time in over 16 months Wednesday. And there was no dispute over who won the highly anticipated matchup.
Simmons was outplayed on the way to a 130-108 victory for New Orleans. The Pelicans jumped out to an early lead and never looked back, leading wire-to-wire. Williamson finished with 25 points, 9 rebounds, 3 assists and 4 steals on 11 of 22 shooting. Brandon Ingram led New Orleans with 28 points on 10 of 17 shooting while C.J. McCollum chipped in with 21 points and six assists. Simmons, on the other hand, took just three shots in the loss, two of which were uncontested lobs on broken plays.
ZION 🙌 pic.twitter.com/ie4EfaGEZQ
— New Orleans Pelicans (@PelicansNBA) October 19, 2022
Nets head coach Steve Nash said early in training camp that Simmons’ re-acclimation to NBA play would be “a process”. That certainly looked to be the case Wednesday night with the three-time All-Star passive and indecisive offensively. Nash said pregame that the message to Simmons has been the same all preseason.
“The message we’ve been giving him all along has been to put pressure on the defense,” Nash said. “Whether it’s throwing the ball ahead, pushing it in transition, or trying to break the paint every chance he gets in the halfcourt.”
While Simmons showed progress in those areas to close the preseason, he took a major step back in terms of aggressiveness in his regular-season Nets debut. When asked postgame how he can return to the physical, above-the-rim style of play from prior years, Simmons said he is still getting back to where he was physically following offseason back surgery.
“It takes time,” Simmons said. “Having back surgery and being away from the game for a year there’s little things that your mind might tell you to go do something but your body’s not wanting to go do that. But those are the habits, that’s something that I just need to continue to focus on and be aggressive regardless of the result.”
Kevin Durant led all scorers with 32 points on 11 of 21 shooting while Kyrie Irving struggled with 15 points on 6 of 19 shooting. The Nets were thoroughly out-hustled in the loss, giving up 21 offensive rebounds to their nine while getting outscored 36 to 4 on second-chance points. Nash said postgame that his team needs to compete harder in all facets.
“They beat us in every category tonight,” he said. “My message to the guys was just raising our standards of competition. We gave up 21 offensive rebounds and turned the ball over. We let them in our paint way too often. Things we had been preparing for, we’ve been working on, and we just didn’t execute.”
“It’s a process for our group,” he continued. “But at the same time there are competitive standards and it’s an opportunity for us to grow every night here, but we have to compete at a high level.”
Durant came to life in the second quarter after a slow start but got little assistance from Irving or Simmons. The former MVP said Brooklyn “didn’t do the little things” in the loss, pointing out the second-chance points disparity as well as early turnovers.
Many in the NBA world will have their eyes on the Nets’ start to the season after Durant’s trade request this summer. The 12-time All-Star said during training camp that the vibes surrounding the team were good, but the real test would come once they face adversity in the regular season.
“Who knows what the vibes will be if we hit a skid or we’re not playing well or somebody gets injured,” Durant said. “I think that’s what makes a team how we stick through those times. It’s easy to be cool and everything is positive right now but we’ll see as the season goes on.”
With a difficult schedule out of the gate, Simmons returning after a year layoff, and Joe Harris and Seth Curry sidelined, Durant’s words may be put to the test sooner than expected. Brooklyn returns to Barclays Center Friday night when they host the Toronto Raptors before traveling to Memphis and Milwaukee early next week.