Vaughn Helps Shorthanded Nets Engineer A Shocker In Indy
The Nets brought their J.V. to Indiana on Saturday night.
In this case, “J.V.” isn’t the initial for “junior Varsity,” even if Brooklyn listed eight players on its “injury” report, including superstars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving plus everyone who logged over 16 minutes in their 120-116 victory over Atlanta on Friday’s front end of their back-to-back.
No, this is Jacque Vaughn’s team, and the Nets’ head coach deserves a ton of credit for masterminding a highly improbable 136-133 upset over the much-improved Pacers. Brooklyn (16-12) is now 14-7 since Vaughn replaced the ousted Steve Nash on November 1. There are a number of factors for the turnaround, but Vaughn’s promotion from assistant coach is high on the list.
Despite all the faux outrage from some around the country over the Nets giving their regulars a load management day (Nic Claxton was legitimately injured and Royce O’Neale will also miss Monday’s match in Washington due to a personal matter), Vaughn—along with the Nets’ Performance Team--made the right call. Brooklyn has driven its starters hard all season, including during its just concluded 7-game homestand in which the Nets needed Durant, Irving, and O’Neale to average 37.5 minutes per game. The team has already run through half of its 14 back-to-backs in the first third of the season. And regarding the fans’ lost opportunity to watch the Nets’ stars live, even after this one night off, Durant and O’Neale are STILL one and two, respectively in total minutes played this season while Irving would be fourth if he hadn’t been suspended for nine games due to promoting hateful and antisemitic content on his social media.
With such a nondescript lineup, Saturday’s affair was the type that the Nets would have punted last season. Whereas Brooklyn has seen other teams use their shorthandedness to create opportunities for hungrier players who responded by taking advantage of them to keep those games close (and even pull out a few—see Brooklyn’s November 22 loss in Philadelphia), the Nets seem to be overreliant on their stars, which Durant once called frustrating in an implicit dig at Nash.
Vaughn would have none of it. He had his team prepared to compete—veterans Markieff Morris, who played a grand total of 11 minutes during the home stand, and Patty Mills, who has been a DNP-coach decision since November 25, provided strong leadership to a young cast that jumped on the overconfident Pacers with a 40-point first quarter. Edmond Sumner, who along with Day’Ron Sharpe was the only Net to see action on Friday night, used his blistering speed to torture his former club with 14 points in the frame.
After such an embarrassment, Indiana started to figure the Nets out. It seemed like every right wing three they took went in and, if not for the Nets’ hustle plays and rebounding (yes, you read that right), the Pacers would have run them out of the building before halftime.
Still, Indiana jumped out in front by 14 points midway through the third quarter when Vaughn broke out his trump card-- a 1-2-2 zone defense. After the game, Vaughn said that he specifically delayed using the tactic earlier because he didn’t want to give Indiana an opportunity to adjust at halftime.
Smart thinking--the change absolutely flummoxed the Pacers, who no longer had a free runway to the rim past Brooklyn’s lousy perimeter defenders (like Cam Thomas). To a lesser extent, the zone also took non-shooting superpest T.J. McConnell and his all-out battle to create extra possessions for Indiana out of the game.
Thanks to the change of pace, the Nets closed the third quarter with a 15-6 run. Hey, maybe Vaughn should teach this zone to his regulars—it would at least give opponents a different look than the exclusive switching screens foundation. Just something to ponder.
In the fourth quarter, Vaughn had to manage a rotation that wasn’t used to playing major minutes in a single game at the NBA level. By sitting Cam Thomas for the entire third quarter. Vaughn kept him fresh for the full 12 minutes, allowing him to go off for 21 points.
Meanwhile, the Nets kept pounding the glass, finishing with 29 offensive rebounds that returned 37 second-chance points, just one short of the league record since they started keeping track of the stat 27 years ago, according to NBA.com’s John Schuhmann. Mills and Alondes Williams, who made his NBA debut with a five-minute run in the first half, were the only Nets active players who didn’t grab at least two offensive rebounds—and Mills’ six defensive boards were the team’s second-most. Remember, the Nets entered the game with the league’s worst offensive AND defensive rebounding percentages.
Another player whose minutes Vaughn had to massage was Yuta Watanabe’s in his first game back after missing ten games due to a hamstring injury. Fortunately, the forward was available to contribute a pair of offensive rebounds, one off his own missed free throw which he distributed out to Mills behind the three-point line, that led to five crucial Nets points during crunch time.
Though the Nets nearly choked away an eight-point lead in the final minute and needed Indiana to finally miss a right wing three-pointer at the buzzer to escape with the win, this was the most memorable game of the season. In a good way.
As The Boardroom’s Anthony Puccio tweeted, it was reminiscent of the Bubble Nets, who resumed the 2020 season with a decimated roster thanks to COVID-19 infections. With only a handful of legitimate NBA players at their disposal, that team went 5-2, with one of the wins against the loaded Bucks as an 18.5-point underdog, and qualified for the playoffs.
Brooklyn’s head coach at that time was, of course, Jacque Vaughn.