Despite losing nine players along the way to injury or illness, the Nets clawed their way through the NBA’s craziest regular season and into the postseason. Their reward? Defending champion Toronto, and arguably the league’s best defense.
Interim coach Jacque Vaughn steadied the Nets after Kenny Atkinson’s dismissal and led them to a surprising run through the restart in Orlando. They’ll tip off Game 1 at 4 p.m. on Monday at ESPN Wide World of Sports convinced they’ve not only earned their playoff berth but have a shot against the Raptors.
“There’s a level of excitement. There’s a level of just knowing we earned our way to being here, we earned our chance to be here,” Caris LeVert said. “We know that we have a battle, we know they’re the defending champs. But we’re going in there knowing that we like our chances against anybody, really.”
Whatever chances they have revolve around LeVert, who has lifted the Nets to a 14-10 mark since Kyrie Irving went down in February. And he’s gone to another level in the bubble, averaging 25 points, 6.7 assists and five boards.
But he’ll have a tough time approaching that against a Raptors defense that was second in the league this season, and first in the restart.
“It’s a definite challenge,” Vaughn said. “We talk about good-to-great. Sometimes good is going to be OK, being able to get that advantage and take advantage of it as quickly as we can and live with the results. Our guys will have an opportunity to make and take shots. We’ll allow them to do it and see what the result is.”
It’s hard enough to even force switches against Toronto’s scrambling, athletic defense. They run foes off the line and rotate to cover each other well. But even if the Nets get in the paint, they’ll find the long-armed defense collapsing.
“They don’t like giving up layups, which means kick-out 3s will be open. But as a team we have to shoot them. There’s a term in the NBA called good-to-great: passing up a good shot to get a great shot,” Garrett Temple said.
“Against Toronto — because of the way they’re able to scramble — a good shot needs to be good enough, and we’ve got to have confidence to catch it, make the right play once we get to the paint, kick it out and let those shots fly. If there’s a mismatch or isn’t, that’s how you expose a defense. You’ve got to catch-and-shoot and be confident shooting the basketball, even with people closing out at us.”
Even after losing Kawhi Leonard last offseason, the Raptors posted the NBA’s second-best record behind All-Star Pascal Siakam and veteran guard Kyle Lowry. The latter — the last man left from the two teams’ 2014 playoff series — said Toronto isn’t defending its title, but hunting a new one.
Against a championship team this focused, the Nets will need excellence from their Bubble Big 3 of LeVert, Jarrett Allen and Joe Harris to have any chance.
“It’s going to be a challenge for us all around, 1-through-5, even on the bench,” said Allen, who’ll have to deal with centers Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol. “They’re all coming out ready to play.”
Vaughn is 7-3 as interim coach with wins over the Lakers, Bucks and Clippers, and has the Nets playing their best basketball of the season.
“We’re confident,” Temple said. “We really love the way that we’re playing right now, especially on the offensive end, sharing the basketball. Defensively we’re communicating a lot better, we understand our concepts, what we’re trying to do in terms of the defensive game plan.
“We have six, seven new guys on the team, and over these eight games we’ve learned each other more and more, so the confidence in that, chemistry is much higher. So I feel good going into it and about the game plan we have.”
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