Now, the real test begins.
Jacque Vaughn’s first game as the Nets' interim head coach couldn’t have come in a more inviting environment Sunday: They were playing an inferior team in the Bulls, the Nets had cobbled together a few strong wins against the Celtics and the Spurs, and they were home at Barclays Center, in front of a welcoming, if somewhat befuddled, fan base.
But all that changed Monday, as the Nets embarked on a four-game West Coast road trip, clinging to the No. 7 spot in the Eastern Conference, and staring straight at the two best teams in the West in the Lakers and Clippers. What’s more, drama around the team is swirling: A report in the Athletic Monday said a number of players had soured on Kenny Atkinson, leading to his surprising ouster on Saturday. It was not just Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, as has been speculated, but a whole cast of characters, many of whom expressed their displeasure at how things were being run after an ugly, 39-point loss to the Grizzlies last week, according to the report.
So now this is the environment where the Nets, and Vaughn, must prove their mettle and their cohesion. Changes already began on Sunday, when Vaughn started DeAndre Jordan over Atkinson’s preferred starting center, Jarrett Allen, and the Nets made a number of switches on defense. More changes will come.
“I’m not sure” what to expect, Caris LeVert said. “It’ll be fun, though. This is my first time going through something like this . . . but I know JV knows a lot about the game, he has a lot of respect for the guys, so we’re looking forward to it.”
And though Atkinson may have lost his voice in the locker room before the decision to part ways, there was still a strong sense of surprise on Sunday. Jordan, whom the Athletic report described as “frustrated” by his bench role, said he was “shocked” by the coaching change. But focusing too much on the past will do them no good, he added.
“The NBA, there’s a game every other day, so it makes you focus on [the] now,” he said after vehemently disputing claims that Durant and Irving were behind the decision to sever ties with Atkinson. “Yesterday was yesterday and we’ve gotta focus on us, being a good team, building off of these games and getting ready for the postseason, hopefully . . . We’ve got some tough opponents, but that’s the NBA. We’ve gotta come out and play. We’ll see tough teams like this in the postseason . . . We gotta be able to win road games.”
The Nets might get a little reprieve with games against the basement-dwelling Warriors and Kings on this trip, but a return to Brooklyn will leave them with only 15 games left, nine against teams that would be in the playoffs, were the season to end today. Two of their final four games are against the Bucks, the team witht the best record in the league.
This road trip, LeVert said, is “very important.”
“It’s definitely big for us because we’re playing for something,” he said. “We’re playing for the playoffs right now. I think we’re in the seven, so that’s huge for us to quiet out the outside noise and just go out there and hoop.”