Having previously secured the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference, the Nets simply will be trying to gear up for a first-round matchup with the defending NBA champion Raptors in their final “seeding” game against the Trail Blazers Thursday night in Orlando. But red-hot guard Damian Lillard and Portland may well be fighting to hold the eighth seed in the Western Conference and maybe even the ninth seed and a spot in the play-in series to follow.
Heading into Thursday’s games at Disney World, the Trail Blazers (34-39) are eighth in the Western Conference mere percentage points ahead of the Grizzlies (33-39), Suns (33-39) and Spurs (32-38), all of which play ahead of Portland’s 9 p.m. tipoff against the Nets (35-36).
If Memphis, Phoenix and San Antonio all lose, the Blazers will own the eighth seed. If two of those teams lose, the Blazers will clinch ninth, but they still would need a victory to move up to the more advantageous No. 8 seed that would require only one play-in series win to advance to the playoffs instead of two straight.
All those permutations aside, Nets coach Jacque Vaughn said he just wants his team to tend “our own lawn. We’ll worry about ourselves as a team, what’s best for us. We talked about having some rhythm going into the playoffs, so, all guys in that starting unit will be available to start the game. I’m looking forward to getting some rhythm back on the floor.”
Starters Caris LeVert, Joe Harris, Jarrett Allen and Garrett Temple all sat out the Nets’ win on Tuesday over the Magic, which gave them three straight wins and a 5-2 record since the NBA restart. Their injury report listed backup point guard Chris Chiozza (right adductor tightness) and backup center Donta Hall (right ankle sprain) as questionable and veteran guard Jamal Crawford (left hamstring strain) as out.
The Trail Blazers also are 5-2 in the NBA bubble and are coming off two straight wins in which point guard Damian Lillard scored 51 and then 61 points, respectively. “I think it’s a great last regular-season game for us going into the playoffs,” Harris said. “It’s going to be a playoff-like atmosphere and intensity. In terms of preparation for us going forward, there’s no better game in terms of the scenario we have.”
Back on Nov. 8, the Nets earned a 119-115 victory in Portland when Spencer Dinwiddie scored 34 points and Kyrie Irving added 33. Neither player is taking part in the restart, and the Blazers were missing injured center Josef Nurkic, who now is back at full strength. And oh yes, Lillard had 60 that night, the first of his three 60-point performances this season.
“They’re much more whole as a team right now, and offensively, I believe they are the No. 1 team in the bubble,” Vaughn said. “The efficiency that they’re playing at and the attention that Lillard deserves puts you on your heels. It will be on us to continue to be aggressors and try to dictate things, see if they can respond to some of the things that we’ll do.”
Nets center Allen knows he will have his hands full against Nurkic on the inside. “Nurk has been playing amazing in the bubble,” Allen said. “[You see] how well they’re jelling, just the ferocity they’re playing with and how much they want that [eighth] spot.”
Asked if the Nets are incentivized by the chance to reach .500 after overcoming so much adversity this season, Allen said, “I think it matters a little bit. I think it shows that even without our stars, Kyrie and Kevin [Durant] for most of the season, we’re still able to come out and play and compete.”