The Nets' Kevin Durant races upcourt while pressured by the Cavaliers'...

The Nets' Kevin Durant races upcourt while pressured by the Cavaliers' Caris LeVert in the first quarter at Barclays Center on Friday. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Neither team was supposed to be here.

At the start of the season, absolutely no one predicted that the star-studded Nets would be hosting a young Cleveland Cavaliers team in a play-in game Tuesday night with the No. 7 playoff spot on the line.

Most pundits projected the Nets to win the Eastern Conference, and on Dec. 31, they were in first place and on pace to finish with 57 wins. Injuries, a COVID-19 vaccination drama, a trade demand drama and an 11-game losing streak forced the Nets to scramble, and they had to win their last four games of the regular season to finish in seventh place.

Meanwhile, the Cavaliers stunned the NBA with their fast start. Though the team had loads of young talent, the over/under line for the Cavaliers in most Las Vegas sportsbooks was 26.5 victories at the beginning of the season, a mark they passed in mid-January as Evan Mobley emerged as a Rookie of the Year candidate and Darius Garland and former Net Jarrett Allen had All-Star seasons.

The Nets and Cavaliers both finished at 44-38. The Nets, who have the higher seed by virtue of their 3-1 mark against Cleveland in the regular season, including a win last Friday, are favored to win the play-in game and advance to open the regular playoffs Sunday in Boston. Yet that hasn’t stopped the Cavs from dreaming and talking big.

“We believe we can beat anybody in this league,” coach J.B. Bickerstaff said Sunday. “We know what we’re facing. We have a ton of respect for Brooklyn. We have a ton of respect for those individuals and the coaching staff, but we just want to go play our best. Let’s go play our best, match them up and see what happens.”

Cleveland got some bad news on Monday as it was revealed that Allen, who has a finger injury, will not be able to play. He hasn’t played since getting hurt March 6, and the Cavs went 3-8 without him. Except for Ben Simmons, who has a back injury and has not played a minute this season, it will be all hands on deck for the Nets. Goran Dragic cleared protocols Monday and Seth Curry, who has a sore ankle, said Monday that he will play.

The Nets-Cavaliers loser will play the winner of Wednesday’s Hawks-Hornets 9-10 play-in game on Friday. The winner of Friday’s game will get the No. 8 seed.

Nets coach Steve Nash said his team is treating it like a must-win Game 7.

“Absolutely,” he said. “We’re only focusing on tomorrow. If we happen to lose and have to play a subsequent game, we’ll focus on that game. But right now, we’ll play this like it’s our opportunity to get in and give the requisite focus and energy.”

The biggest problem with the Nets down the stretch was that their focus and energy, particularly on defense, had a tendency to wax and wane. Nash said some of that has to do with familiarity, or lack thereof. Injuries and a midseason blockbuster trade that sent James Harden to Philadelphia have meant a constant reconfiguring of lineups and rotations.

However, the feeling is that everything is coming together for the Nets at the right time.

“We’re still getting to know this group,” Nash said. “There’s confidence in there, but there’s excitement to continue to grow and build and compete. We don’t really know a ton about our group relative to the other teams who have been together for longer periods of time or had longer continuity this season. That is true. We don’t have the same continuity or history as a group, but that’s fine.

“We should be excited about what we could build, what we can accomplish in a short period of time here and how difficult we could be to beat in a playoff situation.”

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