Is it possible for a postseason series to tell us everything and nothing at the same time? I present to you the Nets and the Toronto Raptors facing off in the first round of the N.B.A. playoffs.
On one hand, you have the Nets, who are down, 2-0, after losing, 104-99, on Wednesday. This was expected: The Raptors, the defending champions, are more talented and heavily favored to win. Many of the current Nets players will either not be on the team next year, when Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Spencer Dinwiddie and DeAndre Jordan return, or they will not get nearly as much playing time. Jacque Vaughn may not even be the coach then.
Opposite them, you have Toronto: a professional and efficient team doing what it’s supposed to do. But this series doesn’t answer any of the key questions for the Raptors as they try to make a deep postseason run — namely, do they have enough top-level talent to repeat as champions?
But the games have been instructive as to the culture of both teams, offering some lessons that the Nets in particular can take going into next year, regardless of how this series turns out.
At a macro level, the Nets have shown themselves to be resilient, both against the Raptors and in the eight seeding games leading up to the playoffs. Sean Marks, the Nets general manager, has spoken many times about the team’s culture of toughness and hard work, which flourished under Kenny Atkinson, who stepped down as head coach during the season, and has continued under Vaughn. This culture has been on full display at Walt Disney World near Orlando, Fla., where the Nets have competed at a high level against better teams.
“We weren’t likely to be the seventh seed once several of our players didn’t come down to the bubble,” Garrett Temple said after scoring 21 points on Wednesday. “We weren’t likely to beat the teams we beat while we were here in the bubble. We enjoy being underdogs.”
The Nets led most of Game 2, until the more-experienced Raptors made just enough shots and caused just enough turnovers in the fourth quarter to come back. The Nets had a chance to tie in the last 15 seconds, but a handoff from Joe Harris to Temple went awry. Kyle Lowry got the steal, and the Raptors iced the game — and breathed a sigh of relief. The Nets did not win, but they did enough to make the Raptors sweat. It was a moral victory if not a real one.
“The adjustments we did make put us in a position to even be in the final minutes and seconds of a game against the defending champs,” Vaughn said after the game.
On a personnel level, this series has provided two revelations: Caris LeVert’s playmaking and Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot’s deserving a shot in the N.B.A.
LeVert is shouldering a heavy burden as the Nets’ point guard — not his normal position. He is also one of the few players on the team who can consistently break down defenses. LeVert dished a career-high 15 assists in the series opener on Monday and 11 on Wednesday. He’s been adept at countering a steady diet of Toronto double teams and traps with crisp passes to the open man. Imagine how happy this must make Durant and Irving, who may be able to feel comfortable leaving the floor and handing the reins to LeVert when they return.
As for Luwawu-Cabarrot, 25, he is on his fourth team in four years — his fifth if you include the Cleveland Cavaliers, who signed him in September and then cut him before he played a game. But after signing multiple 10-day contracts with the Nets, and eventually a multiyear contract in February, he seems to have found a home with the franchise.
He scored 26 points in Game 1 against Toronto, and then 17 on Wednesday. Including the playoffs, Luwawu-Cabarrot has hit double digits in scoring for the Nets in seven of his last 10 games. He is an adept cutter and a reliable shooter. He’s become so reliable that Vaughn inserted him into the starting lineup on Wednesday.
In the series opener, the Nets were in a 33-point hole in the first half. They had every reason to lie down: They weren’t expected to win. Coming back from that deep a deficit would be nearly impossible against the defending champions, who are known for their poise. And yet, the Nets cut the lead to single digits in the second half, riding LeVert.
“Seems like they were trying to deliver an early message to the group,” Vaughn told reporters on Monday. “I did like the way our group responded after halftime and accepted that first punch from Toronto. The rounds will continue.”
Ideally, the Nets would not have put themselves down by 33 in a playoff game. But that they muscled back is an indication that the team is playing motivated under Vaughn.
Unfortunately, mental muscles ultimately don’t equal real ones, as much as I tried to convince my high school basketball coaches otherwise. (Coach! I would’ve made a great glue guy! Your loss, Howell High!) The Nets are unlikely to win this series — not without getting LeVert some serious help in the form of another playmaker. (Where art thou, Jamal Crawford?) And with Harris leaving the bubble for a personal matter after Game 2, the challenge is even greater.
But the team has so far acquitted itself about as well as it can given the circumstances. Effort isn’t the issue, and that’s something the Nets can take into next year when, in theory, they will have a team ready to contend for championships.
“I think anyone watching these past two games felt our team, the energy, the effort, their hard play, their togetherness, never doubting each other, being extremely resilient,” Vaughn said. “Definitely proud of that from the group. We put ourselves in a position to win a ball game. And so that’s all you can ask.”