The Toronto Raptors embraced the role of the underdog on their way to their first NBA championship last season and again this season after the departure of Kawhi Leonard.
They will not be able to use that in their first-round playoff series against the Brooklyn Nets that starts Monday near Orlando.
The seventh-seeded Nets are the epitome of the underdog. They are playing without Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, DeAndre Jordan and Spencer Dinwiddie. They fired coach Kenny Atkinson and replaced him with Jacque Vaughn just before the league shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Yet they were one of the surprises of the reset, going 5-3 as guard Caris LeVert has flourished. They lost to the Portland Trail Blazers by one point Thursday.
“I think they’re obviously one of the big surprises of the restart,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said. “LeVert is outstanding, they’re really playing with a lot of confidence, they’re playing fast. Coach Vaughn has obviously got them dialed in. And I think there’s a lot of opportunity there for some guys that are pretty good players.”
“As a team we got better each and every game,” LeVert said. “That’s what we wanted to do when we came down here. We knew we had a shot to accomplish to keep the seventh spot and keep momentum going. But the job’s still not done. We have a tough series coming up in Toronto.”
The Nets have become a prolific 3-point shooting team, scoring 115 points in more in six of their eight games in the bubble.
LeVert has averaged 25 points in six games in the bubble. Forward Joe Harris averaged 20 points and hit 54 percent of his 3-pointers and center Jarrett Allen has joined the other two playing at a top level.
“The team believes in Caris,” Vaughn said. “This is an opportunity for him to show not only his teammates but the rest of the league the work he’s put in and (get the) honors and achievements he deserves.”
The Nets have earned the respect of the Raptors, the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference.
“They’ve got a lot of guys who are playing with a lot of energy and a lot of confidence right now,” Nurse said. “They certainly earned and deserve this playoff berth and we will respect them, for sure.”
A key player for Toronto will be Pascal Siakam, who has become more of a focal point since the departure of Leonard.
“Obviously, we’re going to do everything in our power to help him play well, but I’m not worried about Pascal at all,” Raptors guard Fred VanVleetsaid. “He was double-teamed last year and he got a lot of attention. And, obviously, Kawhi was there as the primary (option), but Pascal was causing a lot of problems and it wasn’t like people weren’t guarding him because we had Kawhi there, they were pretty locked in on him, too.”
The Raptors won three of the four meetings between the teams this season. The Nets ended Toronto’s franchise-record 15-game winning streak with a 101-91 victory at Brooklyn on Feb. 12, the most recent encounter between the teams.
The Raptors were 7-1 in the bubble.
The teams last met in the playoffs in 2014 when the Nets won a seven-game series. Toronto guard Kyle Lowry is the only player remaining from that series for either team. Nurse was a Toronto assistant coach.
The Nets also defeated the Raptors in a six-game series in 2007.
–Field Level Media