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Nets turning up defense to hold on to eighth seed

Orlando Magic's Markelle Fultz (20) heads to the

Orlando Magic's Markelle Fultz (20) heads to the basket as Brooklyn Nets' Joe Harris (12) and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot (9) defend during the first half of an NBA basketball game Friday, July 31, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis, Pool) Credit: AP/Ashley Landis

The defensive numbers the Nets yielded to the Magic during a 128-118 loss in their NBA re-start opener Friday in Orlando were horrific, but in their second playoff seeding game against the Wizards on Sunday afternoon, the Nets must focus on their “magic number.”

The loss to the seventh-seeded Magic (31-35) dropped the Nets (30-35) into the eighth and final playoff seed in the Eastern Conference. They still have a six-game lead over the ninth-place Wizards (24-41), but if they want to avoid a play-in series for that berth, the Nets must finish more than four games ahead of the Wizards. Their magic number of Nets wins and Wizards losses to earn that berth currently is six, and a win would reduce it to four with six games remaining.

“Yeah, I think the overall group realizes the importance of the game,” Nets coach Jacque Vaughn said after practice on Saturday. “It doesn’t change our approach. Hopefully, we are as locked-in as we’ll need to be every single game. But totally agree that we’ll go into this game as prepared as we possibly can be, as healthy as we possibly can be, and have a great effort.”

Vaughn admitted part of the reason for the Nets’ defensive problems is that they have an undersized lineup without the services of big men DeAndre Jordan (coronavirus), Taurean Prince (coronavirus), Wilson Chandler (opted out) and Nic Claxton (shoulder surgery). But the Wizards also are short-handed because of injuries to guards Bradley Beal and John Wall and the fact that pending free agent Davis Bertans opted out. So, they are relying on forwards Rui Hachimura and Thomas Bryant and veteran guards Shabazz Napier and Ish Smith.

After giving up 111 points in the first three quarters against the Magic, Vaughn naturally focused on defensive adjustments in Saturday’s practice. At the same time, scoring has been up dramatically in many seeding games, including the Rockets’ 153-149 win over the Mavs on Saturday.

“You see the numbers across the board,” Vaughn said. “So, we definitely didn’t overreact to some of the possessions we gave up. When we watched film today, there were some little things we have to do. Because we aren’t as big as we are normally, smalls have to come back and rebound. When that doesn’t happen, we give up paint points. When the pick-and-roll coverage isn’t exactly correct, these teams are . . . more skilled offensively than defensively right now just because there hasn’t been an ideal training camp. We’ll have to be more pinpoint in trying to do the little things to help us defensively.”

In three scrimmage games preceding the re-start, Vaughn experimented with using 6-7 swing man Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot at power forward, but against the Magic, he went with veteran Lance Thomas, who is an inch taller and 30 pounds heavier than Luwawu-Cabarrot. Still, TLC responded with a team-high 24-point game, including 17 fourth-quarter points, and Vaughn said that effort represented “some good that came from” the blowout loss.

Vaughn said he liked the stability Thomas provides and that Luwawu-Cabarrot would have faced a tough matchup against Magic power forward Aaron Gordon, but the starting role will be a game-to-game decision. If he gets the call against the Wizards, TLC said he’s eager to play power forward.

“It’s good to play the four,” Luwawu-Cabarrot said. “I like it, I like being in the paint and fighting for rebounds, boxing out and playing the bigs. I enjoy it, and I embrace it. I want to be out there and help the team no matter the way it is. So, if it is to play the four and go in the paint and fight against other bigs, I’ll do it with pleasure. I like playing four.”

New York Sports