Opponent: Toronto Raptors
Location: Air Canada Center
Watch: YES Network
Listen: WCBS Radio
If not the Sixers, then who? That’s the question buzzing in the background of watering holes throughout Brooklyn after the Nets’ road loss in Philadelphia on Sunday. After the loss, Brooklyn burrowed themselves in a tie for the fewest wins in the league (7) with the Dallas Mavericks, Minnesota Timberwolves, and the aforementioned Sixers, though Minnesota went on to escape that ignominious status with a win against the Phoenix Suns yesterday.
It wasn’t just that the Nets lost a hard-fought Eastern Conference game on the road, it was that they did so to the team they’re battling with to stay out of last place in the conference (and the league as a whole). The Sixers, long the league’s punching bag, had through the machinations of young-Buffet (aka Sam Hinkie), intentionally tried to be bad as means of someday becoming good. Say what you will about The Process, the Hinkie-led Sixers had a plan and they executed it as envisioned. With Hinkie out, the Colangelos in, and Joel Embiid (aka “The Process” personified) finally playing, the Sixers are, at long last, ostensibly trying to win games, not that you would know by looking at the standings.
While the Sixers and the Nets are now tied in the win column, their prospects for the future are hardly equal. The Sixers not only control their own lotto pick, they will receive the Los Angeles Lakers’ as well if the purple and gold manage to stay out of the first three picks. The Nets, as we all well know, will probably never make another first round pick (OK, I’m being a bit dramatic but…) so they have every incentive to win as many games as they can. The Sixers already possess a legit piece to shape a future franchise around (Embiid), while the Nets, despite having several decent pieces, have nothing remotely resembling a superstar on the horizon.
I am dwelling on the most recent loss rather than the game ahead against the stellar Toronto Raptors because that loss tells us far more about the Nets than whatever they do against the Drakes. No one expects the Nets to win, and it likely won’t be all that close, especially with Brook Lopez sitting this one out. The Raptors are one of only a couple teams (the Milwaukee Bucks? Boston Celtics? the dare-I-say-it New York Knicks?) who can honestly give the Cleveland Cavaliers a run come playoff time. The Nets are not remotely in their league, that’s what the loss to the Sixers says more than anything.
In order to make a run at the eight seed, which is the Nets’ only goal this season, they have to routinely beat the teams at the bottom of the Eastern Conference. While beating the upstart Lakers was a major step forward, losing to the Sixers was an equally large step in the opposite direction. No one expects them to turn things around against the Raptors, but, then again, no one expected them to beat the Los Angeles Clippers either. This team has enough talent to surprise teams who don’t take them seriously, but losing to the Sixers won’t earn anyone’s respect.
3 Things to Watch for in Nets-Raptors:
1. How do the Nets hold up on the interior without Brook Lopez?
While Jonas Valanciunas has quietly had a solid year for the Raptors, the team is hardly known for punishing opponents on the interior (at least since the departure of Bismack Biyombo). Lopez would have given the Nets an advantage in the paint, but he will be out for this game. Trevor Booker has had a solid year on the glass, and Justin Hamilton has had some decent moments, but if the Nets are going to get the win, it doesn’t seem like it’ll be from the inside-out. How they play without Lopez against a top team in the East could be revelatory for what they’ll look like should they decide to deal Lopez for picks at some point, provided they can convince any team in the league to willingly acquire a big man, which is no easy feat in 2017.
2. How do Jeremy Lin and Sean Kilpatrick Measure Up?
Backcourt hierarchies are an interesting thing to chart in today’s NBA. The Splash Brothers are far and away the league’s premiere guard pairing, but beyond them you can get into a lot of fairly lively barroom debates. Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum? Only if you’re looking at one end of the court. John Wall and Bradley Beal? Hate each other and their team is terrible. Russell Westbrook and Victor Oladipo? Quietly heating up, though lost in the fixation with triple doubles. Kilpatrick has honestly been one of the league’s better two guards, and if Lin is ever able to string a series of actual games together they might be able to prove themselves worthy of a spot in the conversation. Though often overlooked, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan seem to be the solid choice for second best backcourt. How Lin and Kilpatrick do against them should tell us a lot about the ceiling for this Nets team.
3. Does Drake Honor this Game with an Appearance?
The smart money says “no,” but perhaps the cache of the name on the front of the jersey will be sufficient to bring Drake down from his lowly perch atop the CN Tower to take in a game courtside.