Nets have more than enough to put Raptors to the test

There was a moment, late in the third quarter, when the most beautiful hidden gem of New York City’s basketball season, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, gathered in a pass from Jarrett Allen, let one fly from 26 feet out, and froze his follow-through while watching it splash clean through the net.In that instant there were 2 minutes and 6 seconds left in the third quarter and when you looked at the score it almost felt like a typo: Raptors 90, Nets 82. There are few times when an eight-point deficit resembles a feel-good moment, certainly not in pro basketball, where everyone cashes a check on the first and the 15th.

This felt different. With 4:42 to go in the second quarter, Fred VanVleet — who tormented the Nets all day — drained a 25-footer and the defending champs from Toronto led 68-35, and somehow that seemed like a typo, too, as dominant as the Raptors had been across the game’s first 16 ½ minutes.

And yet … here the Nets were, just over 14 minutes of game time later, and they had sliced 25 points off the lead, gone on a 47-22 run.

“I like how our group responded,” Nets interim coach Jacque Vaughn would say later. “That will continue.”

Again: no medals for trying, not in the NBA, certainly not in the playoffs. And the Raptors didn’t exactly crawl into the fetal position when the Nets made that run, essentially shrugging their collective shoulders and laying down a fourth-quarter hammer in securing a 134-110 victory to take a 1-0 lead in this first-round playoff series.

If anything, the beginning and the end of this game were a tribute to the Raptors, who lost Kawhi Leonard yet still won 50 games this year, still look to be the most formidable impediment to Milwaukee cruising through the East. It was YES Network’s Sarah Kustok who best summarized the Raptors’ ethos: “They have an underdog mentality with a championship pedigree.”

Perhaps it was a quiet tribute to how well the Nets played during the seeding portion of the bubble, despite a makeshift lineup, but the Raptors came out sharp and precise, both ends of the floor. There was no feeling-out process. The Raptors are still comprised of a bulk of players who endured a championship run last year; the Nets with playoff experience have mostly one game taken off the 76ers last year by comparison. That part isn’t a fair fight.

“They were the more aggressive team offensively and defensively at the start,” said Joe Harris, who had a terrific game with 19 points, knocking down 3 of 5 from 3. “We dug ourselves a pretty big hole there because of that.”

But the Nets showed enough Monday afternoon to hint that they can be enough of a pest that the Raptors won’t be able to take a night off. In many years, for many playoff teams, that isn’t enough. In this year, for these Nets, with what awaits in future years? It could well be the perfect kind of gauntlet of opportunity.

There was Harris. There was Caris Levert, who had a wonderful game, 15 points and 15 assists despite being the focal point of the Raptors’ defensive effort. And, of course there was Luwawu-Cabarrot, TLC, who has become a revelation in the bubble, whose emergence makes the Nets look even deeper and more formidable next year, 26 points, seven rebounds and a couple of assists in 33 minutes.

“Give Toronto credit,” Vaughn said. “They are the champions and they’ve played on the big stage before and they wanted to deliver an early message to the group.”

That message was received. So was this one: the Nets were not a fluke the past few weeks. What you saw then was a team learning to play with each other on the fly, trying every day to exceed expectations, which they did. What you saw Monday was also no fluke: the Raptors are the better team, in almost every way. They will certainly win this series.

But the Nets are going to have their moments. The Raptors will have to break a sweat. One of these games the Nets will make 50 percent of their shots from 3 (and not 31), and one of these days VanVleet isn’t going to have a game where he’s a cross between Steph Curry and Russell Westbrook (he had 31 points, 11 assists and went 8-for-10 from 3).

“I think we know what we’re up against,” Harris said, and that is certainly true. But, for what it’s worth, so do the Raptors.

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