So if you happened upon the Nets early in their return game Friday, you had to like what you saw. There was plenty of crisp ball movement. There were five engaged players, notably Jarrett Allen, who looked as if he’d been locked in a basement for four months and had energy to spare.
It was Nets 16, Magic 8 before most of the virtual fans had even figured out how to properly cheer.
If you happened to get there late in the game, you probably liked what you saw because who doesn’t like an 18-0 run? Who doesn’t like to see a team completely melt down and another team completely seize the moment, especially in a fourth quarter? Good times all around!
The problem, of course, was the 36 or so minutes in between.
That was a different story. That, in truth, was the only story. The Magic obliterated the Nets the rest of the way, and the final score was 128-118, and every part of this 48-minute return to play underlined the extraordinary challenges that Jacque Vaughn and his team will have to face for however long their stay in the Orlando bubble lasts.
They are overmatched. They are outnumbered. They bear little resemblance to what their A-lineup was going to be if the world hadn’t turned upside down. They lack size. They are not quite makeshift, but they are only a few paces ahead of that. It is what it is and they are what they are, and all of that was on display Friday afternoon.
“We need to embrace that stuff a little bit,” Vaughn said of the Nets’ need to be scrappy grinders, since there are few other options available for them. “We’ll have to be extremely gritty, put a body on someone every single possession. That gave us more than 40 opportunities to shoot 3s and when teams do that you have to make them pay.”
The Nets didn’t make the Magic pay. They missed 29 of those 42 3s, and while there were some bright spots — specifically Caris LeVert (17 points, seven assists) and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot (24 points, 5-for-8 from 3) — they couldn’t sustain what they started — and they only way this stay in Orlando won’t be a complete unwatchable mess is if the are able to sustain.
“The first few minutes, that’s how we really want to play,” said Allen, who had 14 points in 27 solid minutes. “After that, they dictated the way the game was going to go and when a team does that we can’t just let them do it.”
This was always going to be a unique task for the Nets and especially for Vaughn, who had gotten off to a pretty terrific start with his new team, winning both games after Kenny Atkinson was dismissed and before the league was shut down. The last memory of the Nets, you may recall, was a 104-102 win over the Lakers, in Los Angeles.
That game felt like a nice memory to go out on if play never resumed, sort of the 40-foot putt on 18 that ensures you’ll make a tee time as soon as possible even if the 107 strokes that came before weren’t quite as enjoyable. But it may be something else now, instead.
Because the Nets now sit in the eighth slot in the East, with the Magic having slipped ahead of them. They still sit 5 ½ games ahead of the Wizards — whom they play next in Orlando, Sunday at 2 p.m. If the Wizards can creep within four games of the Nets by the end of seeding play, they’ll force a play-in.
Now, yes: all that would do would ensure a first-round pairing with the mighty Bucks, and that would certainly be a quick and painless duty, even when Jamal Crawford arrives to add a little spice and dash to the Nets’ daily regimen. But if you’re going to go to Orlando in the first place, you probably want to take part in the playoffs. And assuming both the Nets and the Wizards might be in for some hard times coming up, that Lakers game might be vital.
And so will Sunday.
“We need to get better,” Vaughn said. “I believe we will be.”
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