The end of the season is nearly here and the Brooklyn Nets only have one regular season game left to play. After locking up their spot in the playoffs with a win over the Indiana Pacers, they’ll finish either sixth or seventh in the Eastern Conference. That will likely not be determined until the final games are finished, but that does narrow down the field enough for us to take a look at the two potential timelines.
No. 6 Seed
This is where the Nets would end up if the season ended right now — but which poison would Brooklyn rather drink? For Brooklyn to maintain the sixth seed, they will likely need to beat the Miami Heat at home on Wednesday. The good news is that they hold the tiebreaker over both the Orlando Magic and Detroit Pistons, who currently sit in the No. 7 and 8 seeds, respectively. This means that the Nets have control over their own destiny and can confidently take sole possession of the No. 6 seed with one more win.
Of course, things don’t get any easier in the postseason in this scenario as it would put them on a collision course with the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round. The Nets and Sixers have split the season series 2-2 with Philadelphia winning the most recent game 123-110 on Mar. 28th. The Nets have outscored the Sixers by an average of 3.25 points when they’ve faced off this season, but they have only played once since the trade that sent Tobias Harris to the already stacked Philly lineup. An All-Star level four who can do it all including shooting the three ball is almost the Nets’ worst nightmare.
The Nets’ worst nightmare is, of course, Joel Embiid.
Joel Embiid throwing alley-oops to himself in Brooklyn. 😂 (via @NBA) pic.twitter.com/8v88jZtD2O
— SLAM (@SLAMonline) November 26, 2018
Embiid has averaged 30.0 points per game on 60 percent shooting against the Brooklyn Nets this season. That is significantly higher than his season average of 27.6 points per game on 48.3 percent shooting. Jarrett Allen is coming into his own, to be sure, but he isn’t yet capable of matching up with Embiid and neither is the team as a whole. It is clear that the Process would feast in this matchup.
Naturally, in a playoff series, it is easier to create a specific gameplan around an opposing offense. Brad Stevens and the Boston Celtics last year authored a blueprint on how to neutralize Ben Simmons, while Jimmy Butler and Joel Embiid aren’t terrific shooters by any means. The problem is that Brooklyn does not have the same personnel as Boston and the Sixers pose serious matchup questions across the board — not just at the center position.
Tobias Harris is not an easy cover for whomever the Nets decide to trot out at the four, whether it be the youthful energy of Rodions Kurucs or the veteran leadership of Jared Dudley. While Simmons and Butler may not shoot you into submission, their ability to take almost any defender one-on-one cannot be undersold — especially as the game becomes slower and more isolation-focused in the playoffs.
While the sixth seed would be an obviously impressive finish for a team projected to win under 33 games, the potential postseason matchup does not inspire confidence. I would predict the Philadelphia 76ers to win 4-1 with Embiid posting monster stat lines.
No. 7 Seed
The Toronto Raptors have a six-game lead over the No. 3 seed and are only a handful of games back from the one seed. That sterling record comes despite resting their best player, Kawhi Leonard, for 22 games. This is not the same team that has been perennially bounced by LeBron James and they should not be underestimated. They took the season series 3-1 over the Nets and outscored them by an average of seven points per game. Brooklyn’s only win came in the clutch overtime that ignited their early-season turnaround by breaking an eight-game losing streak.
How scared you are of facing the Raptors in the first round is directly proportional to how great you think Kawhi Leonard is.
Last time the Raptors & Nets met, Kawhi hit the GAME WINNER!
🏀: @Raptors vs. @BrooklynNets
🕗: 7:30 PM/ET pic.twitter.com/zA8k5vOUeK
— NBA Canada (@NBACanada) April 3, 2019
It is definitely arguable that D’Angelo Russell has had a better season than Kyle Lowry and that the Nets’ supporting cast provides a more consistent output than that of the Raptors’. However, the team with the best player in a series usually comes out on top. That being said, Leonard has been one of the superstars that Brooklyn has been better at covering this season. While it obviously wouldn’t be easy, one could envision a scenario where some combination of DeMarre Carroll, Rodions Kurucs and Caris LeVert do an acceptable job of guarding him.
Brooklyn’s hardest defensive matchup this year has easily been dominant big men, lighting the team up on a nightly basis time and time again. While Marc Gasol is very talented and shouldn’t be ignored, he is not nearly in the same tier as Embiid or Giannis Antetokounmpo. The area where the Raptors do have a significant advantage over the Nets is inexperience. Additionally, they have probably the most combined playoff experience of any roster in the Eastern Conference — where the Nets have very, very little. Lowry, Leonard and Gasol are not strangers to the bright lights and big moments.
That could be the difference maker as this will be the first taste of that atmosphere for many of Brooklyn’s best players.
But even then, at his best, Leonard is easily a top five player in the league. A player of that caliber can never be truly stopped — but if you can at least slow him down, then the Raptors are beatable.
Either way, there’s no ideal scenario here for Brooklyn. Superstars await them in both seeds — but the Nets have played Philadelphia better overall. Now that the Nets have truly exceeded expectations, it’ll be up to them to push a higher seed to the limits. Can they do it?
At this point, betting against the Nets seems unwise.