There was a moment in the Nets’ win over the Raptors on Friday when the defense slipped and old habits surfaced. Although his team still led by double-digits in the third quarter, Jacque Vaughn appeared to be livid on the sideline.
It was the sort of thing that in the past would have doomed the Nets — a team that for years now has become a touch too familiar with the late-game collapse. But though the Nets eventually let the Raptors get perilously close in what became a 114-105 win, they held on.
“We’re learning,” Kevin Durant said. “We’re playing as a unit.”
The Nets have had two identities since their move to Brooklyn. There was the Kenny Atkinson era, which focused on development and culture, and the Steve Nash era, which was mostly dominated by the Big 3 concept — first Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden, then Ben Simmons in Harden’s stead. (That was in theory — more often, it ended up just being Durant.)
But something new is emerging behind Vaughn, who, as an assistant under the two previous coaches, likely has a cumulative insight on a team whose identity has waxed and waned as it floated from one crisis to the next.
Players repeatedly have said that Vaughn has simplified things, focuses on defense, asks for feedback and encourages adaptability. Vaughn himself made that last part explicitly clear Friday when talking about Joe Harris; after a horrific shooting drought, he is 9-for-13 from the perimeter in his last two games. But though Harris started those two games after previously struggling off the bench, Vaughn gave that tidbit a metaphorical shrug.
“I’m really trying to get the guys to not lean on that,” he said. “Prime example is the other night we played, Cam Thomas did not play in the first half at all. And then he played 19 of 24 minutes in the second half. That’s the mindset we want to have . . . [I want them to] have complete confidence in the group, and they have complete confidence that if they’re starting, not starting, missing two games, playing five in a row, they’re doing it for the sake of the team.”
And that team mentality — a lack of selfishness, Irving termed it — has made for a stark differential. The Nets have won four straight and have improved in nearly all statistical metrics in the last month. Now they have a true test coming Sunday against the team with the best record in the NBA: the Jayson Tatum-led Celtics.
“We’ve got to be solid, you know?” Durant said of the prospect. “We can’t make mistakes ourselves, because they capitalize on it. So we just got to be solid, be ready to play. I’m excited about it.”
To their credit, the Nets have gotten better at that. Since Vaughn took over on Nov. 1, their defensive rating is fourth in the league (up from second-worst before that). They’re getting more defensive rebounds and their assist percentage is way up, as is their effective field-goal percentage. Their player impact estimate, which measures overall performance, is second in the league in that span, up from 22nd on Oct. 31. They’re 11-6 under Vaughn and 13-11 overall.
Part of that is what Vaughn brings to the table, but a lot of it also has to do with players jelling, better communication and guys simply getting healthier after long layoffs. Still, there’s plenty of work to do, especially when it comes to rebounding, where they continue to struggle. The Nets repeatedly have been victimized by opponents’ rebounds and second-chance points — a significant issue given that they can outshoot every other team in the league aside from maybe the Celtics.
“We probably won’t be top five in the league in defensive rebounds,” Vaughn said. “But if we can continue to keep inching our way from being at the bottom of the pack, our shooters who haven’t shot the basketball well the entire year, they’re going to come around, they’re going to shoot the basketball.”
It is, at its core, about melding two parts of the game together. It’s an elusive accomplishment, but Vaughn, who’s seen one version of the Nets under Atkinson and another under Nash, may be in a good position to help it happen.