Kyrie Irving, who earlier this summer attempted to have NBA players pass on the Orlando restart on a conference call, is even enjoying this Nets run.
With the playoffs opening with the Nets facing Toronto on Monday in Orlando, Fla., Brooklyn’s breakthrough bubble star Caris LeVert said he got a peppier phone call from Irving on Friday.
LeVert was named Saturday to the All-Seeding Games Second Team in leading the Nets to a 5-3 bubble record and at least making them a slight threat to dethrone the Raptors.
Irving and Kevin Durant weren’t part of the downsized travel party.
“I talked to Ky [on Friday] morning, talked about the games and playoffs coming up and giving me encouragement,’’ LeVert said on a Zoom call Saturday. “He’s watching all the games. He’s been in this position before, fighting for something.’’
Raptors coach Nick Nurse spent 13 minutes speaking to the media Saturday via Zoom. He wasn’t asked about the Nets nor did Nurse bring up the name of their first-round opponent.
It’s indicative of the Nets’ status, as they are 10-point underdogs in Game 1 to the defending champs.
“We like our chances against anybody, really,’’ said LeVert, who is averaging 25 points, 6.7 assists and 5.0 rebounds in the six games he’s played.
Nets interim coach Jacque Vaughn hopes Irving’s call will continue to spark LeVert.
“It’s huge Caris got a call from Ky — that’s a great thing this isn’t an individual sport,’’ Vaughn said. “Just because we don’t have the group with us, doesn’t mean they can’t be part of it. Caris appreciated that.’’
Nurse, a Coach of the Year candidate, said he’s looking at “a long, long process” like last season.
“It’s a long journey that’s just getting started,’’ Nurse said.
The seventh-seeded Nets would like to make the Raptors’ journey a short one this season but because of a depleted roster, no one is giving them a chance. The Nets lost the season series 3-1 and talked heavily about transition defense Saturday being the key to upsetting Toronto.
The Nets also gain the benefit of no home-court advantage for Toronto in a fan-less gym.
“They still have fan noises a little like you hear on TV,’’ center Jarrett Allen said. “It’s comforting. You can hear a lot more what people are saying. It ups the intensity.’’
Next season, scouts believe LeVert may go from No. 1 option in Disney to Sixth Man. And while he adores Vaughn, LeVert may be playing for a new leader next season — with more Gregg Popovich rumors bubbling forth Saturday.
Ironically, Vaughn received third place in the restart’s coach’s vote perhaps a week before GM Sean Marks embarks on a coaching search.
“That credit goes to the players and performance staff,’’ Vaughn said.
Raptors guard Fred VanVleet paid the scrappy Nets their due. After all, VanVleet is the poster boy of scrap.
“They’re a good team they played us tough all year,’’ VanVleet said. “We got our hands full for sure. I saw a team that had a good competitive spirit and a lot of confidence. They have guys who have been around long enough to bring those guys along.
“They’ve been though quite a bit,’’ VanVleet added. “It’s not like we’re going in disrespecting or overlooking them.”
The play of the Nets’ Bubble Big 3 of LeVert, Joe Harris and Allen has been stellar. Plus, the role-playing sparkplugs including new signee Tyler Johnson, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Jeremiah Martin and veteran Garrett Temple have been inspiring. They are one of the fastest bubble teams to make up for a lack of size that Toronto can exploit with studs Pascal Siakam and Marc Gasol.
“The way we’ve been playing, it’s great,’’ Temple said. “The way we’ve been sharing the ball, I think we must be averaging 29 assists while we’re here in the bubble and shooting the 3-ball pretty well. That’s what we’re going to have to do against Toronto. They scramble a great deal. They give up a good amount of threes though, so if we can make the right passes, knock down some shots, I think that bodes well for us.”
But the Nets will need LeVert’s star to shine.
“I’ve even encouraged him to speak even more and he’s done a great job of taking over the team, whether it be calling plays, talking about bringing us together in the huddle, to encourage guys,’’ Temple said.
The Raptors aren’t as loaded at the top with Kawhi Leonard defecting to the Clippers and they won’t get the spark from their crowd, which was a monumental boon last year’s playoff run. Over the past five seasons, the Raptors have a 36-3 record at home against the Atlantic Division.
“I just had a big thought not doing it in front of fans,’’ Nurse said. “That first game, man, when the Raptors are going to the playoffs and you walk into the arena at the fans get up, it’s really something for us to be part of. We’ll miss that for sure.”
MSG Network’s Knicks sideline reporter Rebecca Haarlow will cover Nets-Raptors and other series for TNT.
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