Nets’ playoff hopes could be aided by ex-teammates on Cavaliers

Some old friends might be able to do the Nets a solid. Cleveland’s Jarrett Allen and Caris LeVert could be the key to Kyrie Irving appearing in a play-in game.

All the Cavaliers need to do to gift-wrap an April present to the Nets? Lose more games than the Raptors the rest of the way.

With 12 games remaining in the Nets’ season, the play-in appears inevitable. They will enter their home game against the Trail Blazers on Friday 3 ¹/₂ games behind Cleveland and Toronto, which are tied for the No. 6 seed in the Eastern Conference.

If the Nets (36-34) hold off the Hornets (a game back) and Hawks (1 ¹/₂ games back), they would visit the No. 7 seed in the first play-in game. The winner would advance to the first round of the playoffs against the No. 2 seed; the loser would host the winner of the Nos. 9-10 game.

The danger that has come into focus throughout the second half of the regular season entails Irving possibly missing both games, as the unvaccinated star would not be able to travel to Toronto and, because of the private sector COVID-19 vaccine mandate in New York City , is not allowed to play at Barclays Center.

Kyrie Irving
Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports

The Nets, for all their potential, would be the underdog in a play-in at Toronto, and if the New York City mandate, a loss to the Raptors would be followed by a one-game faceoff for survival in Brooklyn that Irving would also miss.

That makes the lifeline the Cavaliers are offering so encouraging.

Cleveland has dropped nine of its past 13 games and three of five without Allen, who fractured his left middle finger March 6 and is hoping it will heal before the regular season conclusions. The 23-year-old center, who was part of the January 2021 four-team trade that brought James Harden to Brooklyn, was a first-time All-Star this season, and the Cavaliers are a different team without the former Nets fan favorite .

The Cleveland front office has an affinity for former Nets. LeVert, who also was in the Harden swap, was dealt from the Pacers to the Cavaliers in February, and the wing is building himself up after missing nine straight games with a foot injury. If the Nets and Cavaliers match up in the play-in game, Ed Davis, another member of the 2018-19 Nets, likely would find his way onto the floor in a revenge game, too.

There would be plenty of juicy subplots, beginning with a chance for Allen and LeVert to demonstrate that the Nets never needed Harden in the first place. Cleveland also would put its young backcourt, All-Star Darius Garland and potential Rookie of the Year Evan Mobley, on a national stage against Irving — who hit one of the biggest shots in NBA history to help the Cavaliers win the 2016 championship.

Cavaliers center Jarrett Allen plays during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Detroit Pistons, Thursday, Feb.  24, 2022, in Detroit.
Jarrett Allen
AP
Caris LeVert #3 of the Cleveland Cavaliers looks on during the game against the Los Angeles Clippers on March 14, 2022 at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in Cleveland.
Caris LeVert
NBAE via Getty Images

But the Nets would take those subplots over playing shorthanded. With a game in Cleveland, Irving would be allowed to play, and with or without Ben Simmons, the Nets likely would be the favorites.

There is a third plausible scenario in which the eighth-seeded Nets would travel to a seventh-seeded Chicago for a play-in game, but the Bulls (41-28) would need to fall flat over their final 13 games. Their schedule, however, is the most difficult in the NBA — they will face teams with a current cumulative .560 winning percentage the rest of the way — and at least provides a path in which Irving and Kevin Durant would go against DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine.

Even after their crushing loss Wednesday at the hands of another old pal, Spencer Dinwiddie, the Nets came away pleased with their play after their first loss in five games. Irving has been unstoppable when on the court, and Durant has been his typical self since returning from his knee injury. And Seth Curry might dress Friday; he is listed as questionable after missing three games with an ankle injury.

“I was proud of the guys, great fight. [The Mavericks] made a great play to win it,” coach Steve Nash said after the buzzer-beating loss Wednesday. “Third game in four nights, I thought [we] showed a lot of resilience.”

Nash rarely sounds pessimistic, but even with the uncertainty surrounding Irving and Simmons, there are new reasons for optimism. Toronto winning five straight and erasing the gap on Cleveland has helped the mood.

The Nets and their fans have been placed in a curious position: rooting against LeVert and Allen (should he return). For the new Nets to approximate full strength and emerge from the play-in tournament, they may have to take down the old Nets.

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