The Brooklyn Nets are extending their stay in Orlando.
The Nets clinched their second straight playoff appearance, and their fifth in eight seasons in Brooklyn, with Friday’s 119-106 win over the Sacramento Kings. In the NBA restart format, the Nets are assured of finishing more than four games ahead of ninth-place Washington, thereby avoiding a play-in for the eighth and final seed in the Eastern Conference.
“Huge amount of grit and togetherness shown to respond from a disappointing outing last time and to answer the way we did from the beginning of the game, we were locked in, focused,” said head coach Jacque Vaughn. “It’s great to punch your own ticket into the playoffs. I joked with the guys, I like my laundry being done, but nothing like doing your own laundry. So we took care of business tonight and give credit to our guys for playing extremely well.”
Caris LeVert led the Nets with 22 points in the victory. He’s also leading Brooklyn with 21.5 points per game during their five games in Orlando, followed by Joe Harris with 19.0 points and Jarrett Allen, averaging 16.0 points and 9.8 rebounds.
LeVert and Harris joined a 21-win team in the summer of 2016, and that year, the Nets won 20. The following summer, Allen was drafted. In 2018-19, they won 42 games to bring the Nets back to the playoffs, and now they’re headed back.
“I think as a rookie and a second-year player that was always the goal is to get to the playoffs, to get to the postseason,” said LeVert. “No one knew when it would happen, if it would happen so quickly, consistently now for two years in a row. But that was always the goal for sure, was to compete for a championship every year. It’s gratifying to see all the hard work pay off. We want to continue to do that; we want to make it a habit for this organization.”
To get back to the postseason, the Nets have traversed an unusual, obstacle-filled course. They overcame injuries to build a 30-34 record through the NBA’s suspension of play back in March, holding seventh place in the Eastern Conference while the standings stood frozen for more than four months.
The format for the NBA restart called for 22 teams to go to Orlando, based on being within six games of a playoff spot. In the East, that meant just nine teams, with the Nets in a mix with Orlando and Washington for the seventh and eighth seeds.
Vaughn had taken over as head coach just two games before the stoppage, and had to guide the Nets through an unprecedented quarantine environment and, eventually, a build-up to return to play.
In early July, with workouts escalating at HSS Training Center and the team’s departure for Orlando a week away, Vaughn acknowledged there was “no playbook, no handbook for this scenario” as the team eyed a return to play at the end of the month.
“When I look at this challenge as a coach you’re always trying to galvanize a group and prepare them to win basketball games,” said Vaughn back on July 1. “That will be the objective in the eyes of the coaching staff because you have to get guys to want to risk this opportunity, continue to be in a position of sacrificing themselves, their families, and sacrificing for the organization. So I have to be totally in in all aspects. That is coaching them to make them better, coaching them to win basketball games, but at the same time, I will consistently be concerned about their thought process, their mental health, their growth as human beings as we go into this situation together.”
The return to play brought new challenges. While there was no change in status for Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving and their season-ending injuries, the Nets also lost Nic Claxton to shoulder surgery, and Spencer Dinwiddie, DeAndre Jordan, Taurean Prince and Wilson Chandler to positive COVID-19 tests or opt-outs.
That left them with nine roster players ready to practice as they arrived in Orlando and waited for new additions Jamal Crawford, Tyler Johnson, Lance Thomas, Justin Anderson, and Donta Hall to be cleared to join them.
The Nets began with essentially a two-game lead on Washington. The Wizards, six games behind, needed to make up two games on the Nets to get within four games and force Brooklyn into a play-in for the eighth seed. After a one-sided loss to Orlando in their opener, the Nets bounced back and gave themselves some room with a 118-110 win over the Wizards as LeVert, Harris and Allen combined for 83 points.
Two days later, with that trio sidelined against the league-leading Bucks, the Nets dug deep for a stunner, a 119-116 win that solidified their position, with the Wizards needing to make up three games with just five to play.
“I totally do believe in momentum and the momentum of keeping your spirit in check,” said Vaughn after the win over the Bucks. “We talked about as a group the symbolism of bamboo, being extremely resilient and extremely flexible and adaptable. Tonight was another example; we had to be all of those three things with the different lineup. So overall, that concept has stayed with us and I hope it continues.”
While Washington lost its first four games to smooth a path for the Nets, they haven’t backed in to the playoffs. They claimed their spot with three wins in five games and are in a strong position to hold on to the seventh seed, with 1½ game lead on Orlando with three to play, including another head-to-head matchup against the Magic on Tuesday.
Vaughn has kept a reshuffled roster together, and on course for the playoffs.
“He’s done a great job,” said Allen. “It would be hard for me to be able to task somebody with keeping a team — let alone having to bring a bunch of news guys in, having to get a lot of people accustomed to the team and to how we play, bringing us into a bubble, just all the factors going against him — he’s been able to rally us together, rally us under his system, help us believe in him and believe in the things he’s doing for us. He’s just done an unbelievable job.”