Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks remind Brooklyn Nets who runs the East

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Fresh off his first NBA championship ring ceremony on opening night, Milwaukee Bucks star and reigning Finals MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo picked up where he left the league last season, dominating the sport.

Antetokounmpo casually collected 32 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists in a 127-104 win over Kevin Durant, James Harden and the Brooklyn Nets on Tuesday in the NBA's first game of the 2021-22 campaign, looking very much like a man in full control of his basketball powers. It was a resounding reminder that the road to a championship runs through Milwaukee, even if Brooklyn entered the season as odds-on favorites.

"Obviously, we were all excited for the ring and seeing our banner," Antetokounmpo told TNT's Stephanie Ready on the postgame broadcast, when the nerves were shaken off. "It's kind of hard to balance that — to go from that excitement and that emotional state to get ready to play a game, but I think we did a great job once it was over. We were able to focus on our game plan and ourselves, and we were able to get the win."

With garbage time, to boot.

When last he played the Nets, Antetokounmpo went toe to toe with Durant in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, his Bucks emerging overtime victors. The series left us with some questions about who was the best player in the East, if not the league. And when last we saw Antetokounmpo on a court in earnest, he dropped 50 points in the title-clinching victory against the Phoenix Suns, submitting his answer.

Durant was one of only a few Nets engaged enough to match the intensity of a reigning champion riding the confidence of the franchise's first banner-raising night in 50 years. He registered 32 points, 11 rebounds and four assists in a losing effort. Harden added a lackluster 20 points, eight rebounds and eight assists.

Giannis Antetokounmpo kept James Harden and the Brooklyn Nets on his heels in the NBA's season opener. (Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
Giannis Antetokounmpo kept James Harden and the Brooklyn Nets on his heels in the NBA's season opener. (Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

Brooklyn looked old in the team's season debut. Former All-Stars turned title-chasing mercenaries Blake Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge and Paul Millsap finished with a combined seven points on seven shots in 44 minutes of action. Steve Nash prioritized 34-year-old James Johnson — on his sixth roster since February 2020 — over Bruce Brown, a younger and better option who the Nets leaned on for versatility last season.

Nash also rode Nic Claxton and Aldridge as a traditional center tandem, rather than retest Griffin as a small-ball five in lineups that performed so well in the playoffs. The Nets may just be a team that knows they will still be there in the end pacing themselves and tinkering with a veteran rotation.

All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving's absence was the elephant in the room, until Hall of Famer Charles Barkley openly ripped into Irving's anti-vaccination stance during the NBA on TNT's halftime show. Irving was not in uniform for the Nets because they banished him from all practices and games until he gets vaccinated against COVID-19 or the New York City mandate that prevents him from attending Barclays Center is lifted.

"You don't get vaccinated just for yourself," said Barkley, echoing commissioner Adam Silver's comments earlier in the evening. "You get vaccinated for your family first. You get vaccinated for your teammates second. Things like that. That's what bothers me about this whole thing. I think everybody should get vaccinated. I'm really proud of the Nets for putting their foot down, for saying, 'No, we're not gonna deal with this half-on, half-off.' The only thing that bugs me, he's still going to make $17 million sitting at home."

Newly signed reserve point guard Patty Mills did perform well in Irving's absence, scoring 21 points on 7-for-7 shooting from 3-point range off the bench. For those counting at home, he is on pace to make all 574 of his 3s this season. The rest of Brooklyn's bench combined to miss all nine of their opening-night shots.

The best thing the Nets had going for them on Tuesday was Harden's postgame commitment to the team.

The Bucks were without almost half of their rotation, as Bobby Portis, Donte DiVincenzo, Rodney Hood and Semi Ojeleye are all nursing injuries entering the season. A second-quarter injury to All-Defensive starting point guard Jrue Holiday (heel contusion) further tested Milwaukee's bench, but reserves Pat Connaughton and seldom-used second-year wing David Nwora combined for 35 points on 14-for-26 shooting (7-15 3P).

Khris Middleton (20 points), Holiday (12) and Grayson Allen (10) put six Bucks in double figures. They looked far more connected than the Nets, rotating the ball on offense and smothering it on the other end.

Antetokounmpo hardly needed all that help. He was everywhere from the start, blocking Claxton at the rim, smoothly stepping into his first 3-pointer of the season and finishing a transition dunk off a rifle pass from Middleton that you can feel free to mark down as the early Pass of the Year favorite. All in the first quarter.

Antetokounmpo even made seven of his nine free throws. If his 50-point finish to last season was as an all-timer leveling up on his greatness, the league better hope he has reached his ceiling, because Tuesday was one heck of a warmup act for the encore. It could be a long cold winter ahead for Milwaukee's opponents.

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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach

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