The Nets Are Playing Hard. But Can They Dethrone the Raptors?

The Nets Are Playing Hard. But Can They Dethrone the Raptors?

The Nets Are Playing Hard. But Can They Dethrone the Raptors?

The Nets Are Playing Hard. But Can They Dethrone the Raptors?

The Nets had a difficult regular season. Their two best players, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, missed all or most of the season. Their highly regarded coach, Kenny Atkinson, stepped down in March.

Caris LeVert missed significant time because of a thumb injury. Other key players, like Spencer Dinwiddie and DeAndre Jordan, did not make the trip to Walt Disney World near Orlando, Fla., for the N.B.A. restart after they tested positive for the coronavirus. Another player, Michael Beasley, was signed as a replacement only to also test positive before the restart, so he didn’t play either. Jamal Crawford, the veteran scorer, was signed for bubble depth — and his debut lasted all of six minutes because of a hamstring injury.

It’s been that kind of season for the Nets, who went 35-37 during the regular season. Even in what was supposed to be a bridge year, this kind of tumult was unexpected.

And yet, even with a skeleton crew in Florida, the Nets have been one of the most impressive teams inside the bubble under Jacque Vaughn, their interim coach. And now, as the No. 7 seed, they’re set to play the No. 2-seeded Toronto Raptors, the defending champions, in the first round of the playoffs.

The Nets went 5-3 in the seeding games — a series of eight games to finish the regular season. The last loss came Thursday night, when the Nets had nothing to play for with their seed locked in. Still, they nearly pulled out a win in an intense battle with a desperate Portland Trail Blazers team, which needed the victory to make the playoffs. LeVert carried the Nets to the tune of 37 points, and his last-second jumper rimmed out, allowing Portland fans to breathe a sigh of relief.

Vaughn has the Nets playing hard and competing. But what will that mean against the champs?

The Raptors barely missed a beat this year, even though Kawhi Leonard left in free agency. The only step back this season was on the offensive end: Last year, they were sixth in the league in offensive efficiency. This year, they fell to 13th. But the team rode the league’s second-best defense to another two seed.

Pascal Siakam, a dynamic forward in his fourth season, made his first All-Star game and averaged career highs in points, rebounds and assists. Kyle Lowry, at 34 years old, put together one of the best seasons of his career and made his sixth All-Star game. Other players, like Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell and OG Anunoby broke out for career years as well. Even Serge Ibaka, now in his 11th season, averaged a career high in scoring (15.4). And even with the downturn in efficiency, the Raptors were balanced offensively with six players averaging 10 or more points a game.

Toronto has more firepower than the Nets, both at the top and the bottom of the roster. And it’s not talent with a penchant for lethargy either. Coach Nick Nurse is adept at getting the team to play hard. The Raptors are fourth in the N.B.A. in net rating (essentially the average of how much they win games by).

The team played better defense this year than last year, even after losing one of the best defenders in the league in Leonard. In the bubble, the Raptors had the N.B.A.’s best defense entering their last regular-season game. It’s hard to get buckets on this team, especially without an elite shotmaker.

The Raptors don’t have any significant injuries heading into the playoffs, except for Patrick McCaw, a reserve forward who left the bubble to receive treatment on his knee.

The Nets have been competitive in the restart, but this iteration of the team has not defended well, ranking 17th out of the 22 bubble teams in defense as of Friday.

Maybe the entire Raptors team could oversleep and forfeit several games. Or the Nets could put Flubber on the soles of their shoes. I don’t know. You pick.

But the bottom line is that the Nets are — as another New York institution might say — “outgunned, outmanned.” Even with Irving playing, the Nets would be huge underdogs in this series. But missing most of their best players? It would be one of the biggest upsets in N.B.A. playoff history if the Nets won.

Everything needs to go right for the Nets at the same time that everything needs to go wrong for Toronto. The Nets have very little margin for error. But it’s a weird year! (The Raptors, of course, are familiar with this scenario of weird things happening from last year’s run: Leonard’s last-second shot that bounced in against the Philadelphia 76ers; the Warriors losing several key players to injury.)

LeVert is an absolute talent. There is likely an All-Star game in his future. He’s crafty at getting to the rim. He’s difficult to guard in the open floor. He has even become a threat from deep, increasing his 3-point percentage to 36 percent this season from 32 percent his rookie year. And he has shown that he can take over games.

There is a world in which LeVert plays like he did against Portland on Thursday night throughout an entire playoff series, which would be dangerous for Toronto. But LeVert’s primary issues in his four-year career have been inconsistency and injuries.

The Nets have other established players who will need to be the best versions of themselves to make the most of a strong performance by LeVert: Jarrett Allen and Joe Harris. Allen had a solid season as a rim-running, shot-blocking dynamo, averaging nearly a double-double (11.1 points, 9.6 rebounds) in only 26.5 minutes a game — all career highs. He’s going to need to be a presence at the basket on both ends.

Same for Harris, the sharpshooter who averaged his career best 14.5 points a game and shot 42 percent from 3-point range. Harris is the kind of player who can turn a game single-handedly with his shooting. The Nets will need a couple of those games from him.

The Nets have several players, such as Chris Chiozza and Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot, who have taken on bigger roles in the bubble. These are players who wouldn’t get much time normally, which also means scouting reports on them might be incomplete. Luwawu-Cabarrot scored 24 points against Orlando and 26 points against Milwaukee during the seeding games, so it’s possible the Nets could steal some games just by catching the Raptors off guard.

It’s a small sample size, and the Raptors were resting players. But in the seeding games, Toronto had one of the league’s worst offenses. Only two teams were worse: the Los Angeles Lakers and the Washington Wizards. The Nets, on the other hand, had the N.B.A.’s eighth-best offense out of the 22 teams in the bubble going into Friday.

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