Nets no match for repeat-hunting Raptors in Game 1

There’s no substitute for experience. And the short-handed Nets got a hard-earned lesson in Monday’s playoff opener against the reigning champion Raptors.

The Nets stumbled out of the gate, and had too much ground to make up too fast, falling 134-110 in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference’s first round in Orlando.

Kyle Lowry has said his Raptors aren’t defending their title, but hunting another one. The decimated Nets — who are missing nine players, and trailed by as much as 33 points in the first half — proved a tougher kill than expected in the second half, before falling to a team with both more skill and seasoning.

“Really, everyone’s watching, embracing the moment, embracing the competitive nature of every game, and just really locking in to doing your part as a teammate,” interim coach Jacque Vaughn said before the game. “High stakes and high rewards, but at the same time, extreme pleasure to be playing basketball this time of year.”

The pleasure was all Toronto’s, led by Fred VanVleet (30 points, 11 assists) and Serge Ibaka’s 22 points and seven rebounds off the bench.

Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot had a team-high 26 points off the bench, helping lead Brooklyn’s attempt at a rally. Joe Harris added 19 points on 3 of 5 shooting from deep, while Caris LeVert had 15 points, 15 assists and six rebounds.

After digging themselves into a 68-35 hole, the Nets couldn’t scramble their way out no matter how hard they tried. Brooklyn pulled within 90-82 in the fourth quarter, but no closer. After Toronto padded the lead again, Vaughn raised the white flag and pulled his starters down by 17 with 3:54 to play.

And if last year’s first-round loss had showed them what a playoff team looks like, this was an up-close look at a champion.

“We do have a few guys that were a part of the Sixers series last year, so hopefully they have a comfort level and understand how playoff basketball, there’s a different level of intensity,” Vaughn said. “And then for the guys that haven’t had a chance to play playoff basketball, hopefully we’ll allow them to play with their instincts.

“We’re not the defending champions, so we’re going to play free, our bodies are fresh, and it’s on us to just go on out and keep things simple.”

The Nets fell behind right out of the gate, befuddled by Toronto’s active defense. They missed five of their first six shots and committed a couple of quick turnovers, trailing 10-2 with 8:22 left in the first quarter. Vaughn called a timeout, but it didn’t matter — this wasn’t a run, but a mismatch.

The Nets eventually allowed eight unanswered points to fall behind by 12. They trailed 18-6 before Luwawu-Cabarrot interrupted the drought with a right-wing 3. The deficit just kept growing.

Brooklyn trailed 37-20 after the first quarter, and in a 68-35 hole after Vaughn lost a challenge and VanVleet drilled consecutive 3s.

Even after closing the half on a 16-5 run, the deficit was still 22 at the break. The game was essentially over. Rodions Kurucs — starting at power forward against Pascal Siakam (18 points, 11 rebounds) — had five first-half fouls, and fouled out after logging just 16 minutes.

The second half saw a spirited comeback.

Garrett Temple’s fast-break finger roll capped a 19-11 run coming out of the locker room, and pulled Brooklyn within 84-70 midway through the third quarter.

A Harris layup off a LeVert feed extended the run to 47-22, and cut the deficit to 90-82 on Luwawu-Cabarrot’s 3-pointer with 2:06 left in the period. But the Raptors opened the lead back up, and the Nets capitulated.

“[The Nets] have played with great energy and intensity. They’ve played connected on the defensive end and they’ve played unselfishly on the offensive end,” Toronto’s Nick Nurse said. “They’re buying what coach Vaughn has got them all pieced in their roles. They look like they’ve been playing together forever the way they’ve been playing.”

But it wasn’t close to enough on Monday.

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