After starting the Orlando journey on July 31 as a depleted mess, the Brooklyn Nets became the bubble surprise of August. Now this gritty group heads to the playoffs Monday against No. 2 seed Toronto full of bravado and only needing a Disney World passport.
The neutral, fan-less Disney venue might be key to aiding an upset against the defending NBA champions who coasted through Orlando’s “seedings games.” Canada’s team has been nearly unbeatable at raucous Air Canada Centre the past few years against Atlantic Division foes.
Thursday’s thrilling 134-133 loss to the Trail Blazers could not stop the Nets’ good vibes. The makeshift roster finished up 5-3, with the seventh seed. They watched the starry emergence of shooting guard Caris LeVert, which bodes well for the first round — and as importantly — next season.
“As a team we got better each and every game,’’ LeVert said. “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.”
The Raptors (53-19) don’t have Kawhi Leonard, but boast a fierce backcourt of Kyle Lowry and Fred Van Vleet. Add power forward stud Pascal Siakam and granite center Marc Gasol, playing better with age on defense, makes them an Eastern Conference title threat.
The bubble Nets are a prolific 3-point shooting club — the Raptors’ Achilles heel on defense — and they have scored 115 points or more in six of their eight contests.
“We played a great eight games, but now it’s time to really lock in,’’ LeVert said. “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.”
The Raptors will be a sound test but not the end all, be all on what the future holds on Atlantic Avenue next season. The other members of the Nets’ “Bubble Big 3’’ also have been stalwart, with Joe Harris and center Jarrett Allen playing at a high level.
Add that trio to a threesome of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Spencer Dinwiddie, all absent from Orlando, and the Nets have on paper the makings of potentially the Eastern Conference title favorites in 2020-21. That’s not to mention role-playing Deandre Jordan, Taurean Prince and Nic Claxton.
Next season might come down to coaching as GM Sean Marks needs to figure out if Jacque Vaughn’s impressive work in Orlando is enough to seal the job for 2020-21. Or should their coaching search, which could start as early as next week, lead to a marquee hire out of potential candidates, Jason Kidd, Tyronn Lue, Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson. It stands as the largest decision in their Brooklyn history.
“I think the sky’s the limit,’’ guard Garrett 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.”
Blending LeVert’s game with Durant and Irving is for another time. Right now he’s the No. 1 option — cited for his unexpected vocal leadership.
“We know coming down here wasn’t going to be easy,’’ LeVert said of the depleted roster. “We knew we’d have to come together as a group of guys and teammates. If we didn’t do that, we didn’t have a chance.”
LeVert struck for 37 points, nine assists and six rebounds in a game the Blazers needed to win to extend their season into Saturday’s play-in Western Conference match versus the Grizzlies.
“[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.”
And now it’s onto Toronto without the trip through customs.
“It was the perfect game for us [vs. Portland] for the progression going into the playoffs — a meaningful game with an outcome we had a chance to decide,’’ Vaughn said.
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