The net loss to the Bucks highlights clear areas for improvement

This is what playoff basketball looks like, sounds like — and if you ask any team — feels like.

Colliding bodies. The coaches got fired up. A game between cables, decided at the end of the fourth part.

The Nets’ 110-99 loss to the 2021 NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks gave it all. Steve Nash was ejected after a double technical foul in the third quarter. Kevin Durant took a stinger in his shoulder and Ben Simmons winced with back pain — and continued to struggle to find his footing on the offensive end.

But in the end it was still a game. And in the end, the Nets had a chance to win.

Make no mistake: The Nets will enjoy an undefeated start to their season. They would enjoy the fruits of what will be a season’s worth of labor actually reflected in the win column.

However, they knew they would be in for a tough start, with Luka Doncic’s Dallas Mavericks awaiting them on Thursday for the return of the head-to-head. They knew the wins weren’t going to pile up early. You didn’t need Nash, Kyrie Irving or Simmons to tell you things were going to get ugly before they got pretty.

However, there continue to be areas where the Nets will need to improve if they’re going to eventually start turning that progress into wins.

HEEL DEPTH

It’s clear as day that both Nick Claxton and second-year big man Day’Ron Sharp have improved from where they were last season.

It’s also clear as day that these improvements are frankly not enough.

That’s because other teams will just rough their way into the paint, just like Giannis Antetokounmpo did in the third quarter. After the Nets went on a 35-18 run in the second quarter to take a 55-43 halftime lead, Antetokounmpo responded by taking Carmelo Anthony’s coined “sick ball” to a different level.

Antetokounmpo scored 17 of his 43 points in the third quarter, and he did the same: either in the lower left block, weaving his way through every defender the Nets put at him; or going down in transition or after a rebound, putting your head and shoulder down and getting to the rim.

The Nets don’t have an answer for that, just like they didn’t have an answer for New Orleans’ Zion Williamson and Jonas Valanciunas; seemed to have no answer for Stephen Adams and Brandon Clark of Memphis; and it looks like they won’t have an answer for the foreseeable future at the top of the Eastern Conference, where all the teams leading up to the Finals will be bigger and stronger than the Nets as currently constructed.

NBA player Jeff Van Gundy said it best during the ESPN broadcast. Van Gundy was asked specifically if he believed the Nets could contend at a high level with only Claxton and Sharp playing the five.

“I think they should definitely explore all the options to get a different type of big,” he said.

It’s worth noting that Markieff Morris missed his second straight game for personal reasons, and it’s the second straight time a team has nearly bullied the Nets into a double-digit loss.

“SHOOT BEN”

Those were the actual words Irving yelled after throwing the ball to Simmons a few feet from the rim, only for Simmons to pause, never look at the rim, and pass to a teammate.

Simmons shot two of seven from the field for four points, nine assists, five rebounds, two steals and a block against the Bucks. Defensively, he played perhaps his best game of the season. If this is Simmons the Nets are dealing with, sign them up for a full year.

But two things are clear on the offensive end: First, Simmons is hesitant — even more hesitant than James Harden was last season — to score. And we’re not talking about jump shots. We’re talking about getting to the edge for a slam or even a running hook that thinks it can get away at any time.

Which brings us to the second point: He’s apparently still in labor after undergoing a back procedure this offseason. On one play, defending Antetokounmpo, he hunched over in obvious discomfort, then continued to play through the pain.

It’s admirable, but it’s always been a cause for concern: Simmons, just months removed from a microdiscectomy, is now tasked with being the Nets’ best and healthiest defender at all five positions.

And then the Nets ask him to be aggressive on offense.

He should be, because on Wednesday night the Bucks simply parked Brook Lopez in the paint and dared Simmons to shoot anything outside of five feet. The worst-kept secret is that he still hasn’t regained the athleticism that allowed him to finish at the rim with authority. Against the Bucks, he missed a wide-open layup, then missed the ensuing turnover a split second later.

Which brings us to the viral “Shoot it, Ben!” clip, where Irving throws the ball to Simmons a few feet from the basket, and Simmons holds the ball for a second and a half, then looks to pass.

The problem wasn’t the game, but the microcosm of where Simmons is in his return from 470 days of rust, missing the entire 2021-22 NBA season. He played an excellent game defensively, but offensively, he dribbled the ball up the court, then set a screen for the person he passed to – also known as a hand dribble (or DHO) – over and over again.

And if that’s where the Nets are, then it will once again fall on the shoulders of superstar scorers, this franchise boosted with the keys to the kingdom. Irving and Durant combined for 60 points on the night, but Irving missed 12 shots and Durant missed 13. Only one other player scored in double figures: Royce O’Neal, who made four 3-pointers in the second quarter and never scored again.

Antetokounmpo finished with 43 points, but the Bucks also outscored the Nets by 17. Again, it’s not about the wins and losses — yet — more about how the Nets look as they compete in a season with championship expectations.

They look good, but two clear improvements clearly need to be made if this is to be the last team standing at the end of the season.

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