The Nets hung some impressive skins on their wall during the eight seeding games following the NBA restart, including wins over the Eastern Conference champion Bucks and the second-seeded Clippers in the Western Conference. But now, they face the biggest obstacle of all against the defending NBA champion Raptors in a first-round playoff series that begins Monday afternoon at Disney World in Orlando.
Kawhi Leonard left as a free agent last year, but the second-seeded Raptors still have proven veterans Kyle Lowry and Fred Van Vleet in the backcourt, center Marc Gasol and forward Pascal Siakam plus big man Serge Ibaka off the bench. Coach Nick Nurse’s team is the runaway leader in defensive efficiency with a 101.8 rating in the bubble.
Under the circumstances, it would not be surprising if the Nets must overcome a certain amount of intimidation, but veteran guard Garrett Temple said their confidence has grown as a result of their own 5-3 performance in Orlando. “I don’t think it’s a mental hurdle,” Temple said. “I think you just respect the team that they are right now, understanding they got to be the second seed for a reason.
“I think we’re confident. We really love the way that we’re playing right now, especially on the offensive end, sharing the basketball. We have six new guys on the team, and over these eight [seeding] games, we’ve learned each other much better, so, the confidence in that chemistry is much higher.”
Surprisingly, the Nets have emerged as one of the most potent offenses in the bubble behind the leadership of Caris LeVert, who averaged 25.0 points in his bubble games. They are sixth in scoring (119.9 points), seventh in offensive rating (116.2), seventh in effective field goal percentage (55.6), second in assists (27.8), fifth in fewest turnovers (13.3), first in drive points (32.6) and first in bench points (49.0).
It’s fair to say the offense coach Jacque Vaughn has adopted an offensive style designed to attack the Raptors’ switching defense. “Without a doubt,” Vaughn said Sunday after practice. “Overall, our ability to share the basketball has been a positive for us, and it will definitely be tested against a group that’s extremely aggressive. Can we be strong with the basketball? Can we be strong with our intent? Can we be strong with our movement to get in pockets where we can take advantage of our ball movement?”
Last year, the Nets won the opener of their first-round series and then lost the next four, in part, because the 76ers did a great job of taking away three-point shooting opportunities from Joe Harris. That will be a key for the Raptors because Harris averaged 20.0 points and shot 54.1 percent from three-point range in six seeding games he played.
“Joe will definitely garner some attention from them unlike our other shooters on the team just because of his effectiveness at catch-and-shoot,” Vaughn said. “But I think there are other elements to Joe’s game that have been elevated from last year, whether it’s his ability to put the ball on the bounce and get to the rim for us or his ability to . . . create opportunities for his teammates.”
They key for the Nets will be for Harris and everyone else to relieve defensive pressure on LeVert by continuing to move the ball as well as they have for the past eight games to keep the Raptors scrambling. “Obviously, they are going to load up on Caris, and we know that,” Harris said. “Our other guys are going to have to step up, be aggressive and make shots. If we do well defensively, we’ll be able to get out in transition, allow Caris to get out in space and let him operate that way.”
That’s the plan, anyway.