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Nets visit Toronto to face Raptors after long layoff

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NBA: Toronto Raptors at Brooklyn Nets Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

And we’re back. The Brooklyn Nets just had their longest in-season break outside of All-Star weekend; it’s not often a team returns home during between opponents during a road trip. Three whole off days for the heavy load-bearers of the team to rest their legs, for some nagging injuries to hopefully fade a bit farther away, for the fans to take a breath and a step back and realize this is a pretty serious Nets team we have on our hands. No, there haven’t been many easy wins lately. Some comfortable wins but no blowouts, which have historically been a sign of true playoff contenders. But wins are wins, and the Nets are stacking them up.

Brooklyn is 8-1 over their last nine games, and quietly a game out of the Eastern Conference’s third seed. Silently, they’re 3.5 games behind the Milwaukee Bucks, who lost by 41 points on Thursday night, with a lot of season left, and the league’s eighth-easiest remaining schedule. (Although, with injuries and rest days abound, looking too far down the schedule is fairly pointless.)

As Matt Brooks pointed out on this site recently, Brooklyn’s turn-around from a 2-6 start is, materially, owed to the defense. But it’s much more of a spiritual shift. There isn’t a lot of fancy film to show, examples of Jacque Vaughn changing fundamental principles. Everything is just cleaner, and executed with much more precision. Switches are on-time, as is help. Brooklyn is still small, and prone to getting worked on the glass, but they don’t go down without a fight. The talent of the group has probably been overstated - every team is so damn talented now, it’s not like Brooklyn is a walking All-Star team -- but the Nets have more than enough talent for those improvements to guide this team to W’s. Things just feel right.

An immediate time-out after a breakdown? We aren’t ****ing around anymore.

Such is the state of the Brooklyn Nets as they cross the border for their third match-up with the Toronto Raptors. This is a good team, clawing towards greatness, whether through external or continued internal improvements. How high can they go? Is the three-seed theirs to lose? Is the two-seed in reach? They’re a manageable 33-20 away from a 50-win season; that doesn’t sound too bad either.

Even Brian Windhorst is impressed...

My apologies, though, that’s wayyyy down the line. Brooklyn’s main goal right now is to get a win on Friday night, vs. a struggling Toronto Raptors team north of the border. If they do win, the Nets will have swept the Raptors this season.

Where to follow the game

Nothing out of the ordinary here. YES Network and the YES App have the telecast, and WFAN-FM has the radio call for this one. All local, with a 7:30 p.m. ET start-time from Scotiabank Arena.


Brooklyn’s small snipers are dinged up. Patty Mills is doubtful with a non-COVID illness, and Seth Curry is questionable with right hamstring tightness, which is apparently contagious in Brooklyn. And youngsters David Duke Jr., Kessler Edwards, and Day’Ron Sharpe will be with Long Island, not the big league squad, for the contest. All three played in Thursday’s win over the Westchester Knicks at Nassau Coliseum.

Toronto is still missing forwards Otto Porter and Precious Achiuwa. OG Anunoby missed their Wednesday contest vs. Sacramento, and while no official update has been given on his status, consider him questionable.

The game

It’s getting late early for Toronto. Yes, they’ve been banged up, but who hasn’t? The reality is they’ve been a perfectly mediocre team, bathing in a smelly hot-tub with the other .500 teams in the middle of the Eastern Conference. They’re currently in the final play-in spot, but the standings down there change every day, and it’s a major disappointment for a team who expected more from themselves entering the season.

Brooklyn started to separate itself from that tier of teams a month ago, and has no plans to look back. Doing so would be disastrous. If Toronto doesn’t have a pack-separating month or so, they could wind up as sellers at the deadline. Hearing that before the season may have been shocking, but rumors about Fred VanVleet in particular have started to swirl, and it makes some unfortunate sense for Raptors fans. Suddenly, Toronto is in year four of the post-Kawhi era. VanVleet has a player option following this season; Lord knows he’d be attractive to some contending teams for the right price. The Raptors, well...they don’t seem to be contending.

Toronto’s offense is a basketball writer’s dream, but an avid watcher’s nightmare. It’s like watching someone try to get the last bit of ketchup out of the bottle. It’s like watching someone try to bike through snow. There are a lot of fun ways to say it really hurts to see. The Raptors shoot the sixth-most mid-range shots in the league with the seventh-worst percentage. They both take and make the fifth-fewest threes (Cleaning the Glass). They may be the worst jump-shooting team, all things considered, in the league. It’s hard to have such a floundering half-court offense when you never turn the ball over and grab a ton of offensive rebounds, but Toronto has found a way to do it. Many of their offensive possession devolve into tough 16-footers out of isolation (although Pascal Siakam makes a ton of ‘em), and their primary initiators often don’t drive into the paint with enough chutzpah to collapse the defense and create easy looks off kick-outs. VanVleet is a player 30 NBA teams would love to have, but he’s been overburdened this season, and it’s starting to take a toll. He probably shouldn’t have this load to bear.

In their last contest, Toronto scored 123, though. One of their best offensive performances in a while! They went just 6-21 from deep, though, and gave up 124 to Sacramento so...L. It’s been that kind of season for the Raps. Nothing is easy.

Brooklyn, with their switching defense, should be primed to goad Toronto into sludgy, isolation basketball. Give me Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant in that matchup, all day. Of course, this is a still-talented despite the injuries. They’re growing desperate, and the Raptors are physical as all hell. Their starters will play 40 minutes, attacking the glass for all of them.

Considering where these teams are, though, this is officially A Game You Should Win for Brooklyn. It won’t be easy, and it certainly won’t be surprising if the Nets go down 13-4 or something like that. Long layoff for them, motivated Raptors team, pumped up crowd. Gary Trent Jr. will hit two threes and mean mug while Jacque Vaughn is already in the paint, calling time-out. It happens. But, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, I trust Brooklyn to figure it out. They’ve been doing it for a while, now.

From the Vault


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