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Caris Levert Has Taken Control for Brooklyn Nets

LeVert and lineup are thriving on the offensive end with him in lead guard role

The Brooklyn Nets were supposed to be the supporting act on Thursday night against a Portland Trail Blazers team playing for its season and riding the scorching-hot Damian Lillard. All NBA eyes were on this nationally televised game that would decide whether the Blazers or Phoenix Suns would survive into the Western Conference’s play-in for the eighth and final playoff seed.

The Nets held up their end in an electrifying game that went down to the final possession before the Blazers held on for their 134-133 win. But they continued to reshape the league-wide perception and expectations around a team that arrived in Orlando with just nine roster players available to practice before adding in five new players before their season resumed on July 31.

“I knew what we was coming into tonight,” said Lillard in his postgame interview on the court with TNT. “I’ve seen like three of their games and I knew it was gonna be this type of game. We weren’t gonna come in here and just get them outta there. They play with a lot of effort. They play together. They believe.

“And Caris LeVert … is cold.”

LeVert scored 37 points on 16-of-29 shooting in the seeding round finale, with nine assists and six rebounds. He scored nine of Brooklyn’s final 11 points, including the three-point play that got the Nets back within a point in the final minute.

“He’s a great player,” said Lillard. “He’s gonna find a way to be effective and he got into the paint a lot. He lived in the paint. He finished. He made tough shots. He was crafty, he was creative all night.”

The NBA restart brought opportunity for LeVert, and his performance against Portland left no doubt that he has seized the moment. Kyrie Irving’s season ended in February. Spencer Dinwiddie tested positive for COVID-19 in late June and did not join the team in Orlando. These reshuffled Nets fell in line behind LeVert, who took on the responsibility of being the team’s No. 1 option on offense and lived up to it.

“Caris, his leadership has taken a big, big step,” said Garrett Temple. “He’s usually a very quiet, chill guy, but he’s been more vocal since we’ve been here in the bubble. I’ve even encouraged him to speak even more and he’s done a great job of taking over the team, whether it be calling plays, talking about bringing us together in the huddle during the game, to encourage guys to let us know what we need to do as a team, so I’ve definitely seen a lot of growth from him on the leadership side, and the way he leads is contagious, the way he leads definitely encompasses everybody. He encourages people. It’s great to see him taking on that leadership role because he definitely has that in him.”

LeVert finished up the eight-game seeding schedule averaging 25.0 points per game, 12th in the NBA, and 6.7 assists, 10th in the NBA. LeVert shot 48.0 percent from the field and averaged 5.0 rebounds per game. His usage rate of 32.8 was seventh in the league among players who played in at least five games, speaking to the dominant role he had assumed for the Nets.

“I think the greatest thing about Caris is he puts the expectations and the intent on himself,” said Nets head coach Jacque Vaughn. “I think the fact that he wanted to play and see where his skill level was and how he could impact a group says a lot about himself, and for him to be able to get here and get those things accomplished is pretty rewarding, I guess I could use that word, and also encouraging as he will continue to work. He’ll take this opportunity and see what he needs to work on. Without a doubt, he’ll do the work.”

Putting LeVert in an outsized role was always the plan. Digging down on the details of what that meant was up for grabs. Vaughn started out by pairing him with another ball-handler in the backcourt, first Chris Chiozza, a more traditional point guard fit, through three scrimmages and the opener against the Magic. Then combo guard Tyler Johnson.

But after a one-sided loss to the Celtics, Vaughn slid LeVert into the lead guard role starting with last Friday’s game against Sacramento with the addition of Temple to the starting backcourt. The Nets also made a change at the 4 spot, starting Rodions Kurucs. In three games in the role, LeVert is averaging 9.6 assists.

“I honestly think that’s more of my natural position," said LeVert. "When I started playing basketball, that’s kind of the position I used to play. I was much smaller. So I’m really used to playing that position. I’m really comfortable getting other people involved, and I think it’s starting to show a little bit. I played point guard my second year in the league with the second unit, so I’ve just been watching some film of those games and you know, with the team that we have, we have a lot of shooters. So when I get in the paint really easily, and I know obviously there’s a lot of attention on me, so it’s easy when you’ve got shooters all around you and then (Jarrett Allen) down low."

In the three games the Nets have played with LeVert at the point, they scored 119 points against the Kings, 129 against the Clippers, and 133 against the Blazers while shooting a combined 53.1 percent overall and 43.9 percent from 3-point range.

In their 42 minutes together on the floor over the three games they’ve started together, the starting lineup of LeVert, Temple, Joe Harris, Kurucs, and Allen has shot 53.8 percent overall and 51.6 percent from 3-point range with an offensive rating of 127.0.

“The part with Caris, I think he’s a guy that can facilitate with the basketball," said Vaughn. "We’ve talked about putting the ball in his hands and letting him create. He’s garnered double-teams now, which has really heightened our ability to get open shots. And the extension part becomes he and I have a great connection, which I’m proud of that he can talk to me and call off a play and call on a play and suggest a play. And we can talk about scenarios like we did today. So that communication I think is huge when he has the basketball in his hands.”

The Orlando experience started on the downside, with a loss to the Magic as LeVert scored 17 points. But playing Washington two days later in a game that could help Brooklyn shore up its playoff position, LeVert scored 34 points with seven rebounds. He, Allen, and Harris sat out what turned into a surprise win over Milwaukee, and that was followed by the loss to Boston.

After LeVert had 22 points, seven assists, and five rebounds against the Kings to secure a playoff spot, the Nets were a win away from clinching the seventh seed in taking on the LA Clippers, the Western Conference’s No. 2 team, on Sunday.

They jumped out to a 45-24 lead after a nearly perfect first quarter, and LeVert went on to finish with 27 points, 13 assists, and five rebounds, shooting 58.8 percent overall and 40.0 percent from 3-point range.

“In terms of Vert, man, there was a stretch in that first quarter where he was making things look very easy against a really good defensive team, obviously without (Paul George)," said Temple after the win over the Clippers. "His ability to create shots in the paint, get to his spots, has really grown tremendously over the last three or four months. We talked, and he’s telling me how the game is just becoming a lot easier for him to do what he does. Now he’s able to create for himself, but also create for everybody else. I don’t know how many assists he had, but he’s doing a great job taking on that lead guard role and blossoming into a great, great player in this league. The sky’s the limit for that guy.”

“He’s playing at a very, very high level, and it is great to see,” said Nets general manager Sean Marks in a conversation with YES Network’s Michael Grady. “There’s a number of things. I’ve seen the game slow down for him. He’s not being sped up. He’s showing great patience and poise. He’s obviously playing with a lot of confidence, which is terrific. I think we’ve seen that where he’s certainly leaning on Kevin (Durant) and Ky for that, a little bit of mentorship going on over the summer time, which is great for him.

“Right off the bat, he said, ‘I want to come to Orlando. I want to play. I want to see what my work in this offseason — or the hiatus — and how that’s going to translate into games.’ I give him credit, because he came in here ready and he hasn’t backed down from the challenge. There’s also a leadership perspective there. I think you see his voice grow. You see how he’s a vocal contributor, whether it’s in timeouts or on the bench or on the court dictating and directing people where they need to go, which is really terrific to see.”

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