The Nets were one of the NBA bubble’s surprise teams over the course of the eight-game extension to the regular season. Despite the absence of nearly half its roster due to injuries and COVID-19 concerns, Brooklyn managed to finish 5-3, including victories over the championship-contending Bucks and Clippers, to lock down the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference.
Even on Thursday night, in a game in which Brooklyn had nothing to play for against win-or-go-home Portland, the Nets battled until the final buzzer before falling, 134-133.
Unfortunately, the playoffs will be a different story. The second-seeded Raptors will surely be more prepared to play with a defensive intensity that has been rarely displayed on the Orlando campus.
The question, then, is not how the Nets can win a best-of-seven series from the defending champs. It’s how they can stay competitive enough where stealing a game is plausible.
1) Caris LeVert must be the best player on the floor
This isn’t as easy as it sounds, even if LeVert has been fantastic in the bubble. Though Toronto lost Kawhi Leonard, one of the top three all-around players in the league, in last offseason’s whirlwind free agent market, some folks forget that they still possess TWO NBA All-Stars in forward Pascal Siakam and point guard Kyle Lowry.
LeVert will have to outshine both of them to give Brooklyn a chance, especially in fourth quarters. He’s capable—he averaged a 12th-most 25 points per game during the seeding games. In the 129-120 win over the Clippers, LeVert dominated with 27 points and 13 assists and then followed it up with a 37/9/6 stat line versus Portland despite being the only serious ballhandling threat on the court.
Expect Toronto to blitz pick-and-rolls and double team LeVert to get the ball out of his hands—it’s up to LeVert to make the right reads and relocate when the Nets attack the Raptors’ rotations. He’ll have to do better than his 25.8% three-point efficiency in Orlando to keep Toronto’s defense honest.
2) Win (or come close to winning) the turnover battle
The Nets defeated Toronto once in four tries during the regular season. In that 101-91 victory on February 12, Brooklyn didn’t win the turnover battle (13-17), but it was close enough so that the Nets actually scored more points off those turnovers (15-9). In the three defeats, the 53-26 negative turnover margin proved disastrous, giving Toronto a ridiculous 73-22 spread following those empty possessions. Live-ball turnovers fueled Toronto’s transition game, as evidenced by their racking up a 97-48 advantage in fast break points over the four games.
Toronto guards Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet get into ballhandlers’ chests, which could be troublesome for a Brooklyn squad that is missing its top two point guards in Kyrie Irving and Spencer Dinwiddie. Reserve guards Jamal Crawford (hamstring) and Chris Chiozza (adductor) are here but are also nursing injuries, though their status for Monday’s series opener is unknown.
LeVert can sometimes be careless just bringing the ball upcourt, as he was in the closing minutes on Thursday night when Portland star Damian Lillard’s steal proved to be one of the plays of the game.
The Nets will have little margin for error against a team as well-coached as Nick Nurse’s Raptors. Excess turnovers will equal quick death.
3) Rebound 75% of Toronto’s missed shots
The Nets have been undersized throughout the era of general manager Sean Marks. With his bigs dropping like flies prior to the restart, Marks had little choice but to send Brooklyn into battle with only one player (center Jarrett Allen) listed over six-foot nine.
Fortunately, the Nets’ gang rebounding principles allowed them to maintain their middle-of-the-road defensive rebounding percentage. That is, until Thursday, when the Nets secured only 62.5% of Portland’s missed shots. Brooklyn dropped to 16th among the 22 bubble teams in this metric following the loss.
Many of Portland’s 29 second chance points were due to the Nets’ strategy of chasing the always-dangerous Lillard all over the court, leaving the paint open for Portland’s bigs to get offensive rebounding position without even a bump. The Nets may revert to their usual drop pick-and-roll coverage against Lowry and VanVleet to keep Allen closer to the paint, but Toronto’s size, with Siakam, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka rotating up front—or worse, playing together--will present a challenge.
Allen has grown in several ways in Orlando—his passing in particular has been eye-opening and he was credited with six offensive boards on Thursday. However, he still tends to get pushed around underneath. The Nets need to see some more second-and-third efforts, even after he misses a block attempt. Does Allen have a real monster game in him?
4) Make three-pointers at a better-than-league-average clip
Few teams defend the three-point line like Toronto, who allowed a league-low 33.6% on opponents’ three’s this season and just 32.3% in the seeding games. The Raptors’ defensive rotations are quick and aggressive, unlike any team I’ve seen this season. They’ll run you off the line and force you to live on a mid-range shot diet.
The new-look Nets, though, shot 36.2% from deep in the eight seeding games, which ranked ninth among the 22 teams. These playoff games may come down to something as simple as whether the Nets can make shots.
My prediction is that they can — once.
Prediction: Raptors in 5
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Devils and Jets, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.