It was déjà vu in Milwaukee last night as the Bucks took on the Brooklyn Nets in their season opener — a team they had last faced in a Game 7 overtime thriller in the Eastern Conference Semifinals just a few months earlier. In that one, memorably, the Bucks were saved from a loss by none other than Kevin Durant’s enormous feet hitting the edge of the three-point line.
Funnily enough, the Nets also played several games of that series without point guard Kyrie Irving, who stepped on Giannis Antetokounmpo’s foot in Game 4 and never recovered from the ankle sprain.
Irving’s notable absence last night, of course, was not caused by an injury. In what has become the biggest story of the NBA preseason, the seven-time All-Star has chosen to become a public martyr for the anti-vaxxer community. Oddsmakers have the Nets going into this season favored to win it all (along with the Lakers), but the question remains: can they do it without Kyrie? And will they have to? As long as state and municipal vaccination mandates remain in effect where there are NBA teams, or as long as Irving remains firm in his decision not to get the shot, the Nets may be staring down a season that looks very different from what they originally imagined.
The Bucks opened the night with a ring ceremony celebrating the 2021 NBA Finals champs before taking an early lead against the Nets that never really lapsed. The Kyrie question looms large after this loss, despite Brooklyn’s star-studded starting lineup that includes Durant, Blake Griffin and James Harden, as well as last night’s breakout star Patty Mills, who went 7-for-7 from the 3-point line.
The semifinal matchup this summer was like something out of a Disney movie – the small-town, salt-of-the-earth team that had been together for years defeating the big, bad, carefully-curated lineup of All-Stars at the last possible moment — but as the reigning champs returning most of their starting lineup, the Bucks are facing down much higher expectations going into the 2021-22 season.
The All-Star strategy worked for the Miami Heat in the early 2010s with the Big 3 of LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, making it to the NBA finals four years in a row. The Nets are hoping to replicate that sort of success, but uncertainty only seems to grow as their starting point guard leaves them hanging for reasons that are, to say the least, confusing.
Giannis, the undisputed leader of the Bucks and last season’s Finals MVP, racked up 32 points and 14 rebounds last night. He was accompanied in the double digits by longtime teammate Khris Middleton, newcomer Grayson Allen, Jrue Holiday, and even Pat Connaughton, who shocked fans last postseason when he stepped up in the face of Bucks’ injuries and made some key plays to help the team to their championship. Connaughton and Middleton put up 20 points each in the Tuesday night victory.
The Bucks trail only the Nets and the Lakers in odds to win the Finals, though it’s far too early to really tell right now. The first step to winning it all again is winning one game, and they have that first W under their belt. The Bucks face the Heat on Thursday night, and the Nets continue figuring out what it will be like without Irving, for now, as they prepare to face the Philadelphia 76ers (a team with plenty of their own player issues) this Friday.
The two Eastern Conference teams will continue to meet throughout the season in a matchup that looks like a David-and-Goliath situation on paper, while in reality, David has the ring. And David has won the last three battles. Everybody loves an underdog story — it’s just unclear when people will realize that the Bucks may not be the underdogs in this matchup anymore.