It was bad. Then, it got worse. Then, it got ridiculous.
Before departing for the NBA bubble in Orlando, the Nets knew they would not look like they wanted to. Kevin Durant had been out all season. Kyrie Irving underwent season-ending shoulder surgery. Then, a series of COVID-19 cases triggered opt-outs by DeAndre Jordan, Spencer Dinwiddie and Taurean Prince. Wilson Chandler decided to stay home, too.
Sans so many significant contributors, the Nets filled out their roster with players who hadn’t been in the league all season, resembling a highly paid pickup team. The ninth-place Wizards were close enough to force a play-in game. Missing the playoffs looked like the most attractive route, allowing the Nets to retain their own first-round pick, otherwise off to Minnesota.
“Coming in here, we had the lowest [outside] expectations out of everybody,” center Jarrett Allen said. “You can look on social media, you can just ask around, nobody really had expectations of how we were gonna play.”
Uncertainty was also in the locker room, with new faces and an interim head coach joining together after four months of isolation.
“For sure, I had questions before about it,” Rodions Kurucs said.
But Aug. 4 ended with a 119-116 win over the Eastern Conference-leading Bucks, marking the third-biggest upset — based on spreads, as a 19-point underdog — since 1990. On Sunday came a 129-120 win over reigning NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and the championship-contending Clippers, the Nets’ fourth win in the past five games.
Now, the once-unrecognizable roster is enjoying unlikely thoughts.
“Of course it’s changed expectations a lot,” Kurucs said. “I think the biggest key was our communication with us and that’s it. We’ve been working hard on it and talking through every play, trying to understand how every guy thinks, the new guys who came into the team. We just talked it out and we got it and we’re doing great and we’re happy about it.
“Those have been huge games for us and it’s just great how we play together. It’s a good boost of positive emotions for the guys.”
The Nets play their penultimate regular-season game Tuesday against the Magic. Two days later comes a matchup with the Trail Blazers.
But the future is in stone. The seventh-seeded Nets will face the reigning-champion Raptors in the first round of the playoffs.
There will be no pressure. The postseason expectation remains unchanged.
“That kind of makes it easy on us, just going out there playing our game and just competing,” Allen said. “We know we can compete with anybody when we want to.”
Caris LeVert has made it possible.
Since the resumption of the season, the 25-year-old has averaged 22.6 points, 6.2 assists, 4.6 rebounds and 1.4 steals, taking over as the offensive facilitator in Irving and Dinwiddie’s absences. Playing the point, LeVert put up 27 points and 13 assists in the win over the Clippers.
“We’ve talked about putting the ball in his hands and letting him create,” interim coach Jacques Vaughn said. “He’s garnering double teams now which has really heightened our ability to get open shots.”
Vaughn is 6-2 since taking over for Kenny Atkinson and has earned a more serious look at the full-time job next season. Should it be offered to someone else, Vaughn will always have Orlando.
“This will be an experience that we’ll be linked forever, this group,” Vaughn said. “Remember this opportunity and what we do with it.”