Anything short of the 2021 NBA championship should be an embarrassment for the Brooklyn Nets.
Kevin Durant chose them over the New York Knicks and other suitors in 2019, because the Nets were "farther along in the process of being a contender." He was right. Their young core was working on two straight playoff appearances. Durant brought with him seven-time All-Star Kyrie Irving. He pushed to trade that young core for perennial MVP candidate James Harden and recruited six-time All-Star Blake Griffin.
They built what Brad Stevens, the coach of their first-round playoff opponent, calls "probably the most talented team that’s been assembled since I’ve been in the NBA." Since 2013, Stevens' Boston Celtics have faced "The Beautiful Game" San Antonio Spurs, six Finals teams helmed by LeBron James and Durant's two-time champion Golden State Warriors, arguably the greatest team in the history of the league.
The Nets are beyond loaded. That much is painfully obvious through two games of their series with the Celtics. Brooklyn barely broke a sweat in Game 1. Joe Harris, the NBA's most accurate 3-point shooter the past two seasons, led the Nets in a Game 2 blowout. It would be a shock if they don't complete the sweep.
Greater challenges lie ahead. Giannis Antetokounmpo's Milwaukee Bucks and Joel Embiid's Philadelphia 76ers should be waiting in the Eastern Conference semifinals and finals. But let's be serious. Neither of those teams has a second-best player the caliber of Harden, much less a No. 3 option the likes of Irving.
Durant and Harden are two of the last five MVPs. Durant and Irving are two of the four players ever to average 25 points on 50/40/90 shooting. Griffin, Harris, Jeff Green, Bruce Brown, Landry Shamet and Nicolas Claxton aren't just window dressing. The most top-heavy team in the league is also its deepest.
The Nets boasted the greatest offense in history, and their three best players played eight games together. With time to prepare for the playoffs, their defense against the Celtics has been more than good enough.
The embarrassment of falling short of this year's title, where BetMGM has the Nets at +200 to win it, would not just come from being the league's most talented team. It is also the way the three Nets superstars have comported themselves. Durant has on multiple occasions declared himself "on the same level" as LeBron James. Harden has several times dubbed himself "the best player in the world." Irving considers himself "an actual genius when it comes to this game." They are unquestionably three of the most talented offensive players in the history of the sport.
All three are healthy. Durant was the biggest question mark. He missed all of last season with his Achilles injury. His coach, Steve Nash, declared Durant upwards of "99%" of his former self at season's start. The 32-year-old missed two months this season with a hamstring strain. Upon returning, he closed out the regular season averaging a 25-7-6 on 56/47/90 shooting splits. He dropped 32 points and 12 rebounds in Game 1 against Boston and scored 26 points on 12 shots in 29 minutes in Game 2. Scoring comes as easy as ever.
Brooklyn's biggest Western Conference rivals, the similarly self-constructed Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers, are facing first-round challenges, the result of far less support around their superstar pairings.
With his Nets up 30 in the third quarter of Tuesday's blowout of a Celtics team limping through their first-round series, Durant was talking trash to Evan Fournier. Boston's Jaylen Brown suffered a season-ending injury. Jayson Tatum was on the sidelines with an eye injury inflicted by Durant. Kemba Walker has been a shell of himself dealing with an ailing knee all year. Robert Williams is literally limping on a turf toe injury.
If you're willing to embarrass a hobbled and infinitely inferior first-round opponent, you better be willing to do the same against the Bucks, Sixers and whoever comes from the West, or risk embarrassment yourself.
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