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Magic vs. Nets preview: Not the seventh-seed showdown we expected

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Nothing on the line but pride in this one

Orlando Magic v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Ashley Landis - Pool/Getty Images

Call it luck or call it fortune, but Orlando drawing two games against Brooklyn seemed like a rare checkmark on the “good” side of the Magic’s spreadsheet.

The Nets made waves last offseason by signing both Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, but neither player is expected to make an appearance during the rest of this season or playoffs. Durant is still sitting out healing from the torn achilles he suffered in last year’s NBA Finals, and Irving, who missed most of the season anyway, is out rehabbing a shoulder injury.

Despite those injuries, the Nets cobbled together a decent regular season. They finished the abbreviated year at 30-34, a half game above the Magic in the Eastern Conference standings. But further injuries and the coronavirus pandemic have ravaged Brooklyn since the NBA suspended play months ago.

Heading into a scrimmage game with the Pelicans on July 22, just eight days before the league cranks up play again, the Nets were set to be without eight players for various reasons. Former Orlando head coach Jacque Vaughn took over as Brooklyn’s head coach after Kenny Atkinson was fired in early March, and Vaughn has no easy task in front of him. But even before the season started, when the Nets knew they’d be without Durant for the 2019-20 season, this year has been viewed as more of a path to next season instead of as an opportunity all its own.

It’s tough to evaluate Brooklyn because I’m writing this a little in advance and I’m not entirely sure who will and won’t end up taking the floor for the Nets when the time comes. But, I reckon we’ll start sorta big-picture and just kind of work from there.

The basketball gods smiled on us hapless Magic fans by dolling out two chances for the Magic to beat the Nets in eight total games, while just a half-game separated the two teams in the Eastern Conference standings. Naturally, Brooklyn is off to a blistering 4-2 start that includes wins against the Toronto Raptors and the Milwaukee Bucks.

The Nets are very middle-of-the-road in most offensive and defensive team stats. But, the Nets do one thing at an elite level — rebound the ball. They finished the suspended regular season second in rebounds per game at 48.5 and fifth in rebounding percentage at 51.4. For reference: Milwaukee leads the NBA in both categories at 51.7 and 52.4 percent, respectively. The Nets rank second in defensive rebounds per game with 37.6 and fifth in offensive rebounding with 10.8 per contest.

Brooklyn had gone on a bit of a run before the season was called in early March, winning four out of the last five games before the stoppage. The Nets were also, understandably, considerably better at home than on the road. They went 18-14 in Brooklyn as opposed to just 12-20 in their road games. With no crowd present during the games in Orlando, the setting won’t be as familiar as playing at home but it should be, at least, less uncomfortable than any true road game.

The Nets will for sure be without leading scorer Spencer Dinwiddie, who tested positive for the coronavirus in early July and opted for skipping the season’s restart and playoffs after consulting with the team doctors. That leaves fourth-year guard/wing Caris LeVert with the highest scoring average on the team at nearly 18 points. LeVert, as of now, is one of four rotation players from the regular season who will be available to the Nets for the bubble games and playoffs in Orlando. Forward Joe Harris, center Jarrett Allen and guard Garrett Temple are the other three who played major minutes for the Nets this season and are healthy and available for the Nets during the eight-game mini-tournament and subsequent playoffs. Each player averaged double-digits points in at least 20-minutes, so outside of Dinwiddie and, briefly, Irving, the bulk of Brooklyn’s scoring pop remains intact.

LeVert’s last two seasons have been abbreviated due to injuries — he missed 42 games last season thanks to an ankle injury last season and played in just 39 of 64 games before the stoppage because of a thumb injury. Still, LeVert will carry the bulk of the scoring load and has demonstrated the ability to do so comfortably. He played nine games before missing those two months with a bad thumb. He returned January 1 and took about a month to find his groove again. On February 3, he scored 29 points against Phoenix and that started off a run of 16-straight double-digit scoring games for the young guard from Michigan. It also coincided with the absence of Irving, whose last game of the season was on February 1. LeVert averaged 24 points on 45-percent shooting making nearly three 3s per game at a 41 percent clip while pulling down five rebounds plus five assists and nearly two steals each game during that final stretch of the season. He had a similar stretch of high-output basketball before his injury last season, so the combination of these two instances should give Brooklyn fans some confidence in his ability to shoulder the scoring responsibilities.

Dinwiddie was also playing during that stretch, but even then LeVert’s usage rate was higher, 30 percent to Dinwiddie’s 25, indicating that LeVert will also be assuming the team’s point guard and playmaking duties in Orlando. Two-way player, Memphis native and former Florida Gator guard Chris Chiozza makes sense as LeVert’s backcourt partner as he played point guard and averaged 20 minutes and 10 points per game during Brooklyn’s final five games of the season. Recent additions in veterans Jamal Crawford and Tyler Johnson also figure to get some burn in the Nets’ patchwork backcourt, but the exact minute distributions obviously remain to be seen.

Here’s a brief clip of LeVert displaying his playmaking ability. I’m a Tennessee fan, and I cringed watching poor Grant Williams look like he’s in quicksand trying to stay in front of LeVert. Yeesh.

I didn’t set into this with the intentions of it being a Caris LeVert preview featuring some brief tidbits about the Nets, but here we are. How the Magic limit or contain LeVert will be crucial to the matchup. He’s too big for DJ Augustin and too quick and athletic for Evan Fournier (if he returns after missing the Celtics game on Sunday due to an illness).

Fournier has been listed as doubtful, as have Aaron Gordon (hamstring) and Michael Carter-Williams (foot). Orlando also will be without Terrence Ross, who temporarily left the NBA bubble. That gives Wes Iwundu, Gary Clark and Melvin Frazier Jr. another opportunity to show what they can do.

The game was expected to be pivotal, but has proven to be quite meaningless.

It will not be the seventh-seed showdown we all expected after Brooklyn clinched this past weekend, guaranteeing the Magic a first-round date with Milwaukee, the behemoth of the East. I think I’ll just take a rusty fork in the eye, please.

Stats courtesy of NBA dot com/stats and basketball reference dot com