Going into their final regular-season game against the Trail Blazers on Thursday night in Orlando, the Nets face the supreme test in the NBA bubble – trying to stop Damian Lillard, who clearly has been the MVP of the restart.
Over the full season, Lillard has played superbly, averaging 29.8 points and 8.0 assists. But trying to lift the Trail Blazers into a playoff spot during the restart, he has been awesome, averaging 37.0 points and 9.3 assists over the first seven games, including games of 45, 51 and 61 points.
Nets coach Jacque Vaughn said his team primarily was focusing on preparing for its first-round matchup against the defending NBA champion Raptors. But he acknowledged Lillard “is playing at an extremely high level. You have to ask yourself, are you going to allow the No. 1 option to continue to have an impact on the game? Are you going to challenge the other group around him?
“It’s a challenge for the coaching staff to try and give our guys some solutions and also be able to make some adjustments as the game goes on.”
The Nets (35-36) have played surprisingly well in the bubble, matching the 5-2 mark by the Blazers (34-39). Over the course of the restart, the Nets’ defense has improved dramatically to the point where they held the Magic to 38.6% shooting from the field, but they understood Lillard poses much greater problems.
“Dame is a superstar,” Nets guard Tyler Johnson said following morning shootaround on Thursday. “He receives a lot of criticism for some reason, but the dude is a gamer. He goes about his business the right way, and he usually responds in these moments. So, we know he’s going to be looking to put together a big game.
“It’s not going to be one guy who is going to have the assignment of trying to guard him. It’s going to be everybody knowing their spots, everybody being able to rotate and be in position. Because with a guy like that, you can’t just serve him any diet of one thing and expect it to work.”
After the Grizzlies (34-39) and Suns (34-39) won earlier in the day, it meant the Trail Blazers (34-39) could clinch the eighth seed for the play-in series with a win over the Nets but would be eliminated completely with a loss.
“Of course a couple of those guys said we’ve got to take care of Portland," Johnson said of some of the texts he received. "I’m trying to just ignore all that. Hassan told me that, if he says some things during the game, just don’t take it too personal."
Prior to the final “seeding” game, the Trail Blazers need a win to assure themselves of the eighth seed. Depending on the outcomes of the games involving the Suns, Grizzlies and Spurs, they could face elimination with a loss to the Nets.
“It amps you up a great deal understanding that these guys are fighting for their lives,” Nets guard Garrett Temple said of the Trail Blazers. “General knowledge would suggest these guys would be more hungry than we are coming into the game, but we have to try to find a way to match that energy and understand what Dame has done the last few games.
“We have to get ready for a very tough playoff series with a team that, offensively, mirrors this team in terms of having two lead guards [the Raptors’ Kyle Lowry and Fred Van Vleet compared to Lillard and CJ McCollum]. Dame is playing out of his mind right now. We’ve got to make sure we match that intensity and exceed it.”