Nearly 10 months after the regular season started, it ended Thursday night not in Brooklyn, but in an empty arena in a “bubble” at Walt Disney World. The Nets 5-3 record in the “bubble,” their growth under Jacque Vaughn and Caris LeVert’s awesome heroics gave their fans a lot to cheer about. But that’s not it. On Monday afternoon, the seventh seeded Nets will face off against the defending champion Toronto Raptors in that same “bubble,” hoping to continue their unlikely journey.
“As a team we got better each and every game,’’ LeVert said Thursday night. “That’s what we wanted to do when we came down here. We knew we had a shot to accomplish to keep the seventh spot and keep momentum going. But the job’s still not done. We have a tough series coming up in Toronto.
“We have a lot of pride and professionalism in this locker room. A lot of guys are overlooked and took it personally. We were supposed to go 0-8.”
Indeed, some pundits suggested there was a good chance they’d have to face off against the lowly and undermanned Wizards in a play-in tournament this weekend. The Wizards have gone home.
Now, it’s Toronto they’ll face, the team with the best record in the NBA over the past five years, including last year’s NBA championship. Even with Kawhi Leonard abandoning the cold winds off Lake Ontario for the cool breezes of L.A., the Raps under Nick Nurse and Masai Ujiri are a formidable team, winning 53 of 72 games.
They still have Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol and Fred VanVleet and of course, Kawhi-Lite, Pascal Siakam, from last year’s ring-holders and are 10-point favorites in Game 1 which starts at 4 p.m. Monday and continues on alternating days until someone wins four games.
“We played a great eight games, but now it’s time to really lock in,’’ said LeVert who’s assumed the role of team leader. “That’s why we came out here — for the playoffs. There’s no moral victories. We have to lock in the next couple of games.”
Despite the loss of so many players —we’ll spare you the list, you know it by heart— the Nets strength was its offense. Simplified by Vaughn, it finished with the seventh best offense in the “bubble,” led by LeVert’s 25 point per game output and Joe Harris’ 20, bolstered by his 54.2 rate from beyond the “bubble” arc. Jarrett Allen averaged a double double: 15.7 points and 11.0 rebounds while shooting better than 67 percent overall. And in a big surprise, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot averaged 14.8 points off the bench, with a sparkling 52/45/90 shooting line.
Of course, it was all a big surprise, as LeVert said and it will be up to him to surprise Toronto. Vaughn thinks he’s right where he needs to be.
“[LeVert] had a great pace to him, mixing it up, attacking the rim, that balance and making the right play,’’ Vaughn said. “The team believes in Caris. This is an opportunity for him to show not only his teammates but the rest of the league the work he’s put in and [get] honors and achievements he deserves.”
The Raptors are the Raptors. They know what it takes to get to the final game of the season, which should never be underestimated. They have veterans and players playing for their next contract. They, like any team, have vulnerabilities. Their big one, despite their overall solid defense, is stopping the three, particularly those from the corner. The Raptors gave up more corner three’s than anyone. Cue Joe Harris, among others.
Vaughn, though, likes how his team approached the Blazers game. It may not have mattered one iota in the playoff seeding to them, but they played it like it was the post-season.
“It was a perfect game for us (to prepare for the playoffs),” he said. “A close game. We talked about the progression going into the playoffs to get our guys quality minutes. Being a meaningful game where there was an outcome (that) we had a chance to decide. Very impressive effort by our guys, especially knowing that Portland had a lot weighing on this game. So, really give our guys a lot of credit for battling all night.”
So is it okay to talk about next season? Sure, Garrett Temple (who has a $5 million team option coming up) will tell you.
“I think the sky’s the limit,’’ Temple said of the future. “The continuity that we’re playing with, I think this is the way that we need to play. Obviously with guys like Kyrie and KD, they’re very adept at playing in iso situations when need be. So we definitely have that ability. But they also can play in situations where the ball moves. Obviously bringing those two guys back, as well as DeAndre [Jordan], Taurean [Prince], it’s crazy when you think about what we don’t have here and the way we’re playing.”
But in the meantime, we can focus on what’s coming up and recall the last two times the Nets played a higher-seed Raptors team in the first round, in 2007 and 2014. Both times, the Nets ended a promising Toronto season. We’re not saying that will happen again, but hey, again, let’s remember where we were five weeks ago when a depleted but never defeated Nets team arrived in Orlando. To borrow a famous old New York sports phrase, “Ya gotta believe.”
- Surprising Nets relishing underdog role vs. Raptors - Brian Lewis - New York Post
- Nets believe they might have more surprises in store for playoffs - Greg Logan - Newsday
- The Nets Are Playing Hard. But Can They Dethrone the Raptors? - Sopan Deb - New York Times
- Scouting with the enemy: Breaking down the Raptors-Nets series - Alex Schiffer - The Athletic New York
- Deep Dive Series Preview: How the Raptors and Nets match up - Blake Murphy - The Athletic Toronto
- CARIS LEVERT HAS TAKEN CONTROL FOR BROOKLYN NETS - Tom Dowd - Brooklyn Nets
- NETS VS. RAPTORS: BROOKLYN AND TORONTO NBA PLAYOFFS MATCHUP BREAKDOWN - Tom Dowd - Brooklyn Nets
- The Raptors got what they wanted out of NBA Bubble Season. Now it’s time to defend the championship - Doug Smith - Toronto Star
- Five things we’ve learned about the Raptors in the bubble - Ryan Wolstat - Toronto Sun