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As Nets face Raptors, Atkinson says it’s about the playoffs

The Nets took a frustrating loss to the Bulls on Friday night, going down 125-106 in what was really just a lackluster performance all the way through. Not much to celebrate except for Caris LeVert’s return which we’ll get into. I have some thoughts, obviously. The Nets are going to try and bounce back in Canada against the Raptors who made a potentially significant deadline acquisition by trading Jonas Valanciunas and Delon Wright for Marc Gasol. The Raptors are 41-16 — including four straight wins — and just a game back of first place in the East behind the Milwaukee Bucks. They might’ve just gotten even better.

And even though the Nets have lost four of their last five, Kenny Atkinson made it quite clear Sunday that the Nets goal is, now officially, the playoffs. Yeah, he said it.

“I think it is time to talk about we’re in the mix to be in the playoffs. There’s no doubt about it. I think we can say that clear. I’ve been waiting to say that. I’ll say it right now. To me, it’s above expectations. I didn’t plan on being in this position. Credit to these guys. There are 20 games [actually 23] after the All-Star break. Is that the number?” said the coach.

“We’re in kind of money time now. How we go into the All-Star break and how we finish this thing, like I said, I think there’s expectations now, because we put ourselves in the position.”

Let’s get into it.

Where To Follow The Game

YES and WFAN at 7:30pm, ET.

Injuries

Jared Dudley (hamstring) and Spencer Dinwiddie (thumb) are out. DeMarre Carroll (knee) is questionable. Dudley is “getting closer,” said Atkinson, but there’s no timetable yet for Dinwiddie. Here’s some video of Dinwiddie working out Sunday at HSS Training Center.

The Raptors are healthy.

The Game

Marc Gasol is an interesting addition to this Raptors team. He’s had something of an up-and-down year with a hot streak for the first quarter of the season and then a lull following it, but some of that could be attributed to his playing for a team that not only wasn’t going anywhere, but doesn’t look like too much fun to play on anyway. Besides for Mike Conley and Jaren Jackson Jr., there isn’t much going on over there in Memphis. It could also possibly be because he’s 34 and can’t play at a high level for extended periods of time anymore.

While he provides an automatic upgrade to areas like perimeter shooting, post defense, and playmaking, Gasol’s fit next to Pascal Siakam and Serge Ibaka will be interesting. Can they all play together? Will Serge be okay with a bench role? Would Nick Nurse consider bringing Siakam off the bench? We’ll see, and it wouldn’t be the worst thing if the Raptors took a minute to figure everything out and were a little vulnerable in this next matchup.

The Nets lead the league in Drives Per Game and Jonas Valanciunas was always a prime candidate to hack at a driving guard when they finally slipped past him. Gonna miss that. With Dinwiddie out, those free points at the line won’t be as easy to come by, but the return of Caris LeVert might help. LeVert, after checking in to a standing ovation, played 14 minutes and had 11 points, 2 rebounds, 4 assists, and 5 steals. Truly amazing for his first game back. He also looked good and spry and most important, unafraid.

Caris was attacking the rim with confidence and even took some contact that didn’t seem to phase him. Those are the most important aspects of a return from a harrowing injury. Just look over at Boston’s roster and how Gordon Hayward still seems timid to drive into the lane, not what you want to see. There seem to be tempered expectations about how well LeVert can play down the stretch, but with a little more time and some easing back into a key role, it doesn’t seem impossible that we might see something close to Full Strength Caris by the end of the season and possibly playoffs. Patience will be key.

Toronto is a relentless team, ranking seventh in Offensive Rating, eighth in Defensive Rating, and 6th in Net Rating. They are, without a doubt, one of the best teams in the league. In three matchups with Brooklyn already, the Raptors have won 2 and lost 1. After Monday we’ll see them just once more in early April.

The Nets still look weak at power forward, and Lauri Markkanen was getting whatever he wanted on Friday night, finishing with 31 points and 18 rebounds. Siakam, Ibaka, Gasol, and even Kawhi Leonard are going to look to exploit the Nets lack of size and versatility at the 4. Kawhi is having an MVP caliber season, putting up 26.9 points and grabbing 7.8 rebounds and adding an additional 3.2 assists and 1.9 steals just for good measure. He’s shooting 49/36/86 and continues to be one of the best defenders in the entire league.

The Nets best answer to Kawhi, size-wise at least, is probably DeMarre Carroll who can at least get in Kawhi’s way at times. The Nets don’t have too many big mobile wings, especially if we’re counting Treveon Graham as a big man. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is another candidate for the Kawhi assignment, but it feels like Kawhi can probably lure him into a foul pretty easily.

D’Angelo Russell is once again going to have to carry a significant portion of the scoring load in order for the Nets to win this one. Dinwiddie’s absence was really felt against the Bulls. In games where the energy just isn’t there or things aren’t clicking, a high-scoring 6th man point guard is exactly what you need. One big Dinwiddie run could turn that whole game around. After shipping Delon Wright out to Memphis, Toronto’s guard rotation is a tick weaker than it was in the previous matchups, potentially clearing the way for a big D’Angelo Russell game.

Player To Watch

Speaking of Toronto’s guard rotation, Kyle Lowry is now on year seven of manning the Raptors point guard position. He might not be the best in the league, but he’s solid and that level of stability and continuity can allow your team to go out and take other risks like trading for Kawhi Leonard or Marc Gasol.

This season, Lowry has taken on a smaller scoring role and has been more of a facilitator, taking a step back for Leonard and Pascal Siakam and even Serge Ibaka who’s having one of if not the best years of his career.

Lowry is scoring 14.4 points per game with 9.2 assists which ranks second in the league. He’s shooting just 40 percent from the floor and 33 percent from three which isn’t great, but he’s still dangerous on any given night even if he isn’t scoring as much as he did just a few seasons ago.

From The Vault

Hope everyone had a great weekend, here’s my a song to either start off/cap off your weeks.

Enjoy.

For a different perspective, go to Raptors HQ, our sister site on SB Nation.



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