Five biggest takeaways from the Nets’ preseason

The Nets played their final preseason game Friday at Minnesota, and now the regular season opener is around the corner, Wednesday against the Pelicans at Barclays Center.

Coming off a 112-102 victory over the towering Timberwolves, here are some observations from camp and the preseason.

1. About those habits Kevin Durant was talking about…

Durant requested a trade over the summer, then doubled down and asked to get coach Steve Nash and general manager Sean Marks fired. His biggest complaint throughout the disappointing 2021-22 season was the Nets’ eroded culture and poor habits, problems that came to light when they struggled to a 5-16 record during Durant’s absence with an MCL injury.

Durant, Joe Harris, and even Kyrie Irving to an extent, all admitted the Nets had developed a bad habit of taking things for granted, getting caught looking past the present with an eye toward a postseason run they failed to make. But there were Durant, Irving and Ben Simmons all playing — and playing hard — Friday in the preseason-closing victory.

Kevin Durant drives to the basket during the Nets’ preseason win over the Timberwolves.
AP

The Nets reeled off the first nine points and never trailed, hustling and running, even off missed free throws, with Durant and Irving playing deep into the fourth quarter. Durant and Simmons played every tuneup game, while Irving sat out one for the birth of his son. They’re resetting the tone.

“I think you could feel us improving, turning a little bit of a corner,” Nash said after Friday’s finale. “I feel really good about the group’s energy right now. They’re playing hard, they’re playing together.”

2. Ben Simmons finally took to the court.

He arrived in February at the expense of James Harden, but missed all of last season with mental-health issues and a bad back. Both seem to be in the rear-view.

Simmons has had an impact on the Nets’ heretofore sieve-like defense, not shocking for a former Defensive Player of the Year runner-up. They’ve been a switching team, and that isn’t going to change. But they’ll likely make it a point to keep Simmons on top of opposing stars.

Against the Bucks on Wednesday, the Nets eschewed switches to keep Simmons on Giannis Antetokounmpo, and he held the Milwaukee star to 6-for-21 shooting. On Friday, Simmons started on Karl-Anthony Towns. Granted, Simmons fouled out in 13 minutes, but the intention was clear.

3. The Nets are focused on presenting a united front and a happy face.

Not only haven’t there been any Draymond Green-Jordan Poole style blowups, both Marks and Nash have downplayed the fact Durant tried to get them fired. The Nets GM even chastised a reporter for calling him Durant’s boss, instead stating he and the disgruntled player were “partners.”

Ben Simmons defends Karl-Anthony Towns during the Nets' preseason win over the Timberwolves.
Ben Simmons defends Karl-Anthony Towns during the Nets’ preseason win over the Timberwolves.
AP

And to a man, they’ve gone out of their way to be supportive of Simmons. The criticism he got in Philadelphia helped fracture his relationship with the 76ers, and the Nets are determined not to make the same mistakes. They’ve prodded him to shoot and be aggressive. OK, maybe not to commit as many fouls as he did Friday, but to be aggressive nonetheless.

The fact that Simmons actually feels comfortable enough to joke on Twitter about shooting an airball at a recent community event speaks volumes about his headspace.

4. It’s the Nets, so of course injuries are a thing.

Five different Nets are coming back from surgeries of some sort.

Harris (foot) and Seth Curry (ankle) are the league’s active leaders in 3-point percentage, and both have been sidelined. Harris — who is extension eligible through Monday — hasn’t suited up since a 15-minute cameo in the preseason opener, but seems a little closer to returning. Curry is doing individual work, but still hasn’t been cleared for 5-on-5.

The Nets could be without both of them last opening night, and TJ Warren (foot) won’t even be evaluated until next month. All in all, the injury situation could be worse heading into the opener. But Nets fans are always waiting for the other shoe to drop.

5. Are they starting to figure it out?

After Nash and Irving both chastened the Nets over their effort in the first two preseason games — and it deserved to be called out — they clearly played harder in the last two tuneups. But they also played smarter.

The impact of new offensive coordinator Igor Kokoskov is apparent. The Nets are trying to be less reliant on isolations and are running more motion. It’s taking some getting used to, with a cumulative 41 assists and 53 turnovers in the losses to Philadelphia and Miami. But they settled in with a combined 56 and 29, respectively, in wins at Milwaukee and Minnesota.

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