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#How the Nets match up against the Raptors at all positions

#How the Nets match up against the Raptors at all positions

After having their roster gutted — losing a total of nine players to either injury or COVID — the Nets still managed to claw their way into the playoffs. Their reward will be facing defending champion Toronto, and arguably the league’s top defense.

From Vegas to the media, few give the Nets much chance against the Raptors, but there are still intriguing matchups. Like Joe Harris trying to get open against glove OG Anunoby, or the point guard duel between rising star Caris LeVert and All-Star Kyle Lowry, the last player left from their 2014 playoff showdown. Or interim coach Jacque Vaughn trying to solidify his job status against ingrained Nick Nurse.

Here is a look at how the Nets and Raptors match up across the board ahead of their first-round NBA playoff series, starting at 4 p.m. Monday:

Point guard: Caris LeVert vs. Kyle Lowry

A combination of Lowry and Fred VanVleet would usually give Toronto an edge at the point, especially on a team missing both Kyrie Irving and Spencer Dinwiddie. Still going strong at 34, Lowry mounted an All-Star season in which he averaged 19.4 points and 7.5 assists. But LeVert is emerging as a star in the restart.

“Caris LeVert is cold,” Damian Lillard said of LeVert, who has gone to the next level since the Nets lost Irving in early February, averaging 24.3 points, 5.7 assists and 4.9 rebounds to lead them to a 14-10 mark. And LeVert was even better in the seeding games, named second-team All-Bubble.

“It was cool to definitely get some recognition,” LeVert said of the honor. “But as a team, we’re definitely looking forward to the playoffs right now. That’s where our focus is.”

Kyle Lowry and Caris LeVert
Kyle Lowry and Caris LeVertGetty Images

LeVert has become more of a leader, rounded out his game with more post play and moved from off-guard to the point in his final three starts, averaging 28.7 points on 52.2 percent shooting with 9.7 assists and 5.3 boards. Matching those stats will be tough against long, athletic defenders like Anunoby and Pascal Siakam, but he’ll have to draw switches and penetrate for the Nets to have any chance whatsoever.

Edge: Nets

Shooting guard: Garrett Temple vs. Norman Powell

Temple’s impact on a game can be subtle and understated, a heady defender and steadying influence. But the Nets’ locker room leader is going to have his hands full with Powell and a switching, suffocating Toronto defense.

Forget for a moment that the Raptors can line up both Lowry and VanVleet in the backcourt together. Even if Temple ends up guarding Powell and making him work on offense, the fact is Toronto’s athletic, long-armed defense can switch and simply eliminate players. The 3-and-D prototype gives Toronto the advantage.

Edge: Raptors

Small forward: Joe Harris vs. OG Anunoby

An unrestricted free agent this coming offseason — one general manager Sean Marks called a top priority — Harris helped himself with a solid season, averaging a career-high 14.5 points on 42 percent shooting from 3-point range. But as one of the shorthanded Nets’ Bubble Big 3, he’s been even better in the restart.

Playing six of the eight seeding games, Harris lifted his scoring average to 20 points and hit a scalding 54.1 percent from behind the arc. He’ll have his work cut out for him to come anywhere close to that against the Raptors and Anunoby.

Anunoby’s impact goes far deeper than his middling scoring. He’s the best wing defender on a team full of them. He’s so stout on that end that he averaged single digits in the restart and was still a team-best plus-7.3.

Edge: Even

Power forward: Rodions Kurucs vs. Pascal Siakam

The Raptors lost their best player in Kawhi Leonard and still posted the best winning percentage in team history. Siakam is a huge reason why.

The third option last year behind Leonard and Lowry, Siakam is now the man. His defense is elite, and he’s poured in career-highs in points (22.9), rebounds (7.3) and assists (3.5) this season to make his first All-Star game.

Kurucs is a willing defender and has a knack for getting under the skin of even the most poised opponent. But he’s sorely outmatched here.

Edge: Raptors

Center: Jarrett Allen vs. Serge Ibaka

Another matchup the Nets need to win to have even the slimmest of chances.

Serge Ibaka averaged a career-high 15.4 points this regular season. But he hasn’t been at his best since the restart, his scoring average cut nearly in half and a minus-5.6 in the bubble. Meanwhile, Allen is in the best form of his life. He was second in the bubble in field goal percentage (67.3) and third in rebounds (11.0), one of just four players in Orlando to average at least 15 points, 10 boards and four assists. He still changes games on defense and is becoming a better passer on offense. But he’ll have to deal with both Ibaka and resurgent Marc Gasol, and outplay both for the Nets to have a chance.

Edge: Nets

Bench

Despite Leonard’s departure last offseason, Toronto is one of the deepest teams in the NBA. And robbed of nine players due to either injury or coronavirus, the Nets are the most decimated in the league.

Fred VanVleet
Fred VanVleetGetty Images

Granted, Brooklyn still led the bubble in bench points (49.0), and were one of just two teams with at least four double-figure scorers off the bench: Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Jeremiah Martin, Tyler Johnson and Chris Chiozza. They had a plus-21 net rating when Johnson and Chiozza played, best of any Brooklyn duo with at least 40 minutes logged. But Toronto’s bench has more depth, talent and experience.

The Raptors’ reserves afforded them the chance to spell starters in the bubble and still go 7-1 with an NBA-best 103 Defensive Rating. VanVleet matched his pre-pandemic production (17.8 points, 6.7 assists), and Gasol anchored the defense with his IQ and savvy. Throw in Chris Boucher, X-factor Terence Davis and ex-Net Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and this stellar bench is another big edge for Toronto.

Edge: Raptors

Coaching: Jacque Vaughn vs. Nick Nurse

These two are on opposite ends of the security spectrum. Vaughn replaced the departed Kenny Atkinson right before the season was interrupted by coronavirus. He’s gone 7-3 as interim and deftly juggled five different lineups in the seeding games to exceed expectations, third in the voting for Coach of the Bubble.

Nick Nurse
Nick NurseGetty Images

“The players deserve the credit, in all honesty. They’re the guys that are out there making the play,” Vaughn said. “I’m a small vessel in this thing, trying to put them in the right positions.”

Still, Vaughn may have more recognition than job security. When the playoff run ends, the Nets are expected to start a coaching search in earnest. While Vaughn will get a legitimate look, he’ll have to wait and deal with hearing other names like Tyronn Lue, Jason Kidd, Mark Jackson and even Gregg Popovich.

Meanwhile, Nurse has a ring from his first season in Toronto and security. Even after losing Leonard, he’s coached the Raptors to the league’s second-best record (53-19) and missed co-Coach of the Year by a single vote. There are few nights Toronto doesn’t have the coaching edge.

Edge: Raptors

Prediction

The Nets lost the season series 3-1, dropping the third meeting by a point in Toronto before turning around four days later and snapping the Raptors’ 15-game winning streak 101-91 in the last tilt before the All-Star break. A fairly similar 4-1 series defeat might be in the offing here.

Monday’s Game 1 might be Brooklyn’s best shot at victory. While the Raptors’ defense has gone from strong to strongest in the restart, their offense has gone cold, especially when teams get back in transition and make them operate in the half-court. And series openers have historically been anathema for Toronto.

Up until 2017-18, Toronto had been 1-12 in Game 1s — including dropping the 2014 opener against the Nets when Raptors president Masai Ujiri famously proclaimed “I have one thing to say before we go into the game. F*** Brooklyn!” While the Nets rallied to take that classic series in seven, they’re 29/2 underdogs to pull off an upset in this one.

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