With 10:39 to go in the second quarter Friday, Caris LeVert entered the game for his first NBA action in nearly three months. Barclays Center rose to its feet, with a couple of his Nets teammates cheering along. What followed was a couple of stints that reminded Nets fans what they missed in LeVert, largely considered their best prospect earlier this season.
But beyond this limited stretch in his first game back, LeVert's return means much more, a huge addition to a Brooklyn team that's fighting for its first postseason berth in a few years.
"I thought he looked good; he looked athletic," Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson said following Brooklyn's 125-106 loss to the Bulls. "He was active pushing the ball, getting downhill like he does, making passes."
LeVert missed 42 games since going down with a scary foot injury in mid-November at Minnesota. He was carried off on a stretcher and at the time it seemed the Nets' playoffs chances followed. Prior to the injury, LeVert was averaging 18.4 points (leading Brooklyn) 4.3 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game on 47.5% shooting from the field. He'd bring clutch performances and pesky defense on a near-nightly basis. His first game back had its share of expected rough patches, but it was also a lot of the same LeVert.
"The first couple minutes I was kind of getting my feet wet, getting back into it," LeVert said. "But then after that I felt like I was more comfortable."
LeVert had a few rough misses early and didn't look to attack the rim with his usual ferocity early. Then some leakouts came and LeVert showed off a bit of his playmaking ability, getting him going.
Defensively he was in the right positions all night, coming away with a career-high-tying five steals. His first came jumping the passing lane early into his return, and he took off with a burst of speed that looked reminiscent of October LeVert, leading to an easy shovel pass and score on the break.
He found his offense in the fourth quarter, attacking off the pick-and-roll with multiple tough and-one finishes.
But the impact of his return can't be measured in this one outing. The Nets erupted in his absence, winning 20 of 26 in one stretch, helping them take a 1.5-game lead for the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference. Brooklyn hasn't made the playoffs since 2015 and looked like a potential first-round pest prior to LeVert's return. Now that their stud swingman is back, their chances of breaking that streak are better than ever, and the conference elite will hope to avoid this squad in the first round.
LeVert brings the whole package to Brooklyn's lineup, filling up the holes that were apparent even through this recent tear. Carried primarily by their high-scoring tandem of first-time All-Star D'Angelo Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie, the Nets would sometimes struggle to find their offense with one or both having an off night. Now with a third primary ball-handler and pick-and-roll threat, it alleviates needing both to shoot lights out on a given night. He's also one of the team's best perimeter defenders, with the trio of Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Treveon Graham and LeVert likely to be tasked with guarding the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler come April.
"We are guys that really love defense and really take pride in it.," Graham told SNY after the loss. "Having us out there full strength, I feel like it's gonna be hard for other teams to really maneuver through that."
LeVert and the Nets may be a few games away from full strength, but last night was a good start.