The Nets took care of business against the teams they should beat. Now comes the real test.
On Saturday night, they will face the Raptors at Scotiabank Arena. Toronto (38-14) has won a franchise-record 13 games in a row. The Nets then will face the Pacers (31-21) in Indiana on Monday and host the Raptors on Wednesday.
“I’ve said it since the beginning of the year, I think they’re a championship-contending team,” Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said of the Raptors after Friday’s practice. “I said it when we played them in the preseason. They’re really good.”
The defending champions have been one of the league’s biggest surprises and have the second-best record in the Eastern Conference despite losing superstar Kawhi Leonard to the Clippers in the offseason. Pascal Siakam, 25, entered Friday night averaging 23.7 points per game, Kyle Lowry remains the team’s engine in the backcourt and Nick Nurse has put himself in consideration for coach of the year honors.
“I think the fact that they had Kawhi, that was the excuse, that they won it because of Kawhi. I don’t think it’s that simple,” Atkinson said. “They’ve proven it, that they really do it in a team concept.”
The Nets (23-27) have won two straight and four of five to wrap up a 5-2 stretch, all against opponents with losing records. They are 5-17 against teams with records of .500 or better.
The Nets are without Kyrie Irving (right knee sprain), who did not make the two-game trip to Toronto and Indiana. Irving already has missed 30 games with various injuries. There is no timetable for his return, though he’ll be reevaluated on Sunday.
“He’s going to continue to rehab. We’ll see what that means when we get back,” Atkinson said.
“We obviously miss him on the floor,” DeAndre Jordan said. “He’s our floor general. But he’s in practice and film sessions and obviously trying to hurry up and get back to 100% healthy and where we need him.”
Despite a flurry of activity before Thursday’s trade deadline, the Nets elected to stand pat. Given where they are as a team — still in the evaluation process with Kevin Durant expected to be sidelined for the entire season as he recovers from Achilles tendon surgery — their inactivity was expected.
“You never know. You just never know with these things,” Atkinson said. “Someone asked me the other night, do you ever talk to the guys and say, ‘Hey, you’re safe?’ I’ve seen too many cases where anything can happen.”
Notes & quotes: The 6-11 Jordan bristled when asked about the Rockets going small with 6-5 P.J. Tucker at center, perhaps sparking an eventual trend. “I don’t care . . . I’m just saying if it’s one team out of 30 [that] goes small, that [doesn’t] mean everybody else is doing it.” . . . The Nets signed reserve Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot to a multiyear deal.