When they arrived in Orlando for the NBA restart a month ago with a roster depleted by injuries and illness, the Nets had reason to wonder if they could even make the playoffs, especially after being blown out by the Magic in their opener and falling behind them to the eighth seed. But after winning four of their past five games, the Nets (34-36) have clinched the seventh seed and rendered Tuesday afternoon’s rematch with the Magic (32-39) meaningless.
That’s a good thing for them, because the Magic are 3-0 against the Nets this season and own the tiebreaker. However, the Nets’ recent 4-1 stretch, which includes shocking upsets over the league-best Bucks and a Clippers team seeded second in the Western Conference, has been eye-opening.
“Coming in here, we had the lowest expectations of anybody,” center Jarrett Allen said after Monday’s practice. “You could look on social media, you could ask around. Nobody really had any expectations of how we were going to play. That makes it easy on us just going out there and playing our game . . . We can compete with anybody when we want to.”
Considering the absence of seven veterans who likely will be with the Nets next season, there’s no telling how many of the current newcomers will return. But coach Jacque Vaughn said the playoff experience the Nets will gain against the defending NBA champion Raptors will have lasting value.
“This will be an experience that we’ll be linked forever with this group,” Vaughn said. “I’m not sure this is going to happen again, pandemic where you continue to play and figure things out, a bubble’s created, basketball is still present and just the way our world is and where our economy and a lot of things are going on at the same time. This group will be forever linked together and remember this opportunity and what we deal with.”
Second-year forward Rodions Kurucs admitted he was worried about how things might work out with all the roster changes. But after stumbling out of the gate against the Magic, the Nets have figured each other out and have adjusted to Vaughn’s changes to the system.
“I feel like it’s just playing together and sharing the ball, supporting each other and getting each other’s back,” Kurucs said. “That was the biggest key. We did some dinners together with the guys, we had some good moments off the court. We’re having fun in the swimming pool after the practices . . . So it’s just been team bonding off the court. It’s fun to play with them and fun to communicate with them off the court and on the court.”
One of the biggest changes Vaughn has made since replacing Kenny Atkinson as coach is allowing players freedom to take mid-range shots rather than always hunting three-pointers and drives to the rim. While Vaughn has allowed Caris LeVert to create for himself, second-unit guards Chris Chiozza and Tyler Johnson are playing at a high tempo. As a result, the Nets are moving the ball like never before and have four games with at least 30 assists in the restart.
For health reasons, the Nets plan to rest Allen (left ankle sprain), LeVert (left thigh contusion), Joe Harris (left groin contusion) and Garrett Temple (rest) along with injured Jamal Crawford (left hamstring strain) against the Magic. But as they prepare for the playoffs, the Nets’ expectations are rising.
“Now that we have a more established base, we have games under our belt as a single team, not just a bunch of random guys put together, we’re finally able to see where we are and where we can be,” Allen said. “Going into these playoffs, I expect a lot out of us.”