The Brooklyn Nets are all but back in the NBA playoffs for the first time since 2014-15. All that's really left to determine is who their opponent is going to be.
The Nets currently sit seventh in the Eastern Conference, up half a game against the eighth-seeded Miami Heat and behind half a game to the Detroit Pistons with six games to play.
At the moment, they would face off against the Toronto Raptors in the first round, but with constantly shifting standings, the Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks are potential adversaries too. Here's a look at which of the three teams makes for Brooklyn's best chance at an upset.
The Bucks are currently the runaway first seed, boasting the league's top defense and fourth-best offense this season. They are currently 2-0 against the Nets this season, both double-digit victories, with two more matchups to go before season's end.
Milwaukee may not have the starpower of Philly or Toronto, but it can easily be Brooklyn's worst nightmare. Former Net Brook Lopez can nullify Jarrett Allen's rim protection better than any other center he'll likely face, shooting 37.4 percent from 3 on over six attempts a game. His floor spacing and green light have helped propel the Bucks to this point, and Allen having to chase him behind the arc will hamper the Nets' ability to funnel scorers into the second-year center's airspace.
The Bucks also MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo. The goal for teams will likely be to try and focus on slowing him down and hope his teammates don't beat them. This becomes tougher when the lead shot blocker defends an outside shooter, and while Caris LeVert, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, DeMarre Carroll and Treveon Graham make a nice core of capable wing defenders, Antetokounmpo has been another animal this season. The Nets will have to scheme him hard, and will likely throw their zone at him and the Bucks often.
On the other end, D'Angelo Russell will face a variety of stingy defenders himself. Eric Bledsoe, Malcolm Brogdon and George Hill are all strong on that side of the floor, and Milwaukee can even throw bigger guys like Khris Middleton or Tony Snell at him and hide a guard on one of Brooklyn's spot-up guys. This is going to be a difficult team to score on, and the Nets will need their incendiary All-Star to score in the 20s and 30s to have enough on the board to squeak out wins.
A rivalry renewed! Remember the old Paul Pierce, Masai Ujiri foolery? Good times. The Nets are 1-2 against Toronto this season, the lone win coming in an overtime thriller at Barclays Center. The Raptors will likely hold onto the second seed, and sit comfortably as the best iteration of this franchise, ever.
Brooklyn would be up against the likes of Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry and newly-acquired Marc Gasol. Toronto also boasts a couple of dynamic big men in Pascal Siakam and Serge Ibaka that are no fun to deal with. That's a lot of size up front for a Nets team that has ran with mostly smaller stretch 4s all season. Jared Dudley and Rodions Kurucs will have some trouble handling all that size and athleticism. The Nets would have to find a way to deal with that beefy frontcourt while maintaining their usual style of play offensively.
Leonard is, of course, the key cog in Toronto's machine. The former Spur may not be having the season Antetokounmpo is, but he's not far behind in the "best of the East" rankings. Brooklyn will scheme a bit differently for him, given he's not handling the point as much as Antetokounmpo and prefers to operate in the Kobe Bryant zone (mid-to-high post on the wing) most of the time. The Nets can be a little more aggressive in helping and going to their zone, with Toronto's key rotation lacking an abundance of shooting. Gasol puts up less than two a night; Ibaka is putrid from deep this season; Siakam is hovering at an OK 35 percent; and ditto for Lowry, who has had a history of losing his shot in April and May.
Philly arguably has the best five-man lineup the East has to offer: Ben Simmons, J.J. Redick, Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris and Joel Embiid. They will be a problem for the Nets, though Brooklyn does get a leg-up here: the bench. Philly's backups don't carry quite the same talent, and the Nets could take advantage with one or two of their stars on the bench. Spencer Dinwiddie and LeVert will have their chance to step up and make this a series, and a 2-2 season split should give them and their team some confidence.
Another key driver of this possible series will be the Allen-Embiid matchup. 'The Process' is the league's best center and the Sixers' best player, and has put up three 30-point efforts on Brooklyn's young stopper this season. Allen may not be able to stop him in a series, but if he can slow him down in a couple of key games, it will go a long way for Brooklyn.
The biggest question for the Nets this series would be what they do with Russell defensively. He has made legitimate strides on that end, but against the 76ers' starters, there's seemingly nowhere for him to hide. Simmons towers over him; chasing Redick around 26 screens a possession won't be any fun; and the two forwards are ... enough said. It's no secret Russell will have to continue his scoring and playmaking exploits in the postseason for the Nets to be successful, but in this particular matchup, he's going to need to step up on the defensive end as well.
It's hard to decipher exactly which opponent gives the Nets the best chance at advancing. One thing for certain is although they'll be outmatched talent-wise, Brooklyn isn't going to be outworked. Nobody expected the Nets to be a postseason lock, especially not this soon after a bottom-up rebuild. But this team is well-versed at exceeding expectations, and there's little reason to believe it can't do it again.