If the Nets weren’t Jacque Vaughn’s team before Friday night’s signature win over the Pacers, they are now. Vaughn guided the Nets to a win few people, including most fans, thought was possible.
It was not random, not some lucky twist of fate. The Pacers are an improved team and on Friday night a healthy one. The Nets won because of a strategic decision and a couple of tactical ones.
The strategic decision was, of course, holding out eight players — essentially the entire rotation — so they could regroup. The Nets have played 28 games. Only the Jazz have played more at 29. The Bucks have only played 25, Same with the Sixers. And as every fan knows, Kevin Durant (994) and Royce O’Neale (980) went into the Pacers game leading the league in minutes. It may not be popular with the league, but it was no doubt popular with the players in question. By holding them out, Vaughn ensured that all eight would play no more than one game, vs. the Wizards Monday night, in a six-day stretch, from Friday through Friday.
“When we took a global look at it ... when you have two or three guys, rotational guys out, it puts a strain and a stress on two or three more guys and then we’re really not in a position of taking care of the team in total,” said Vaughn. “We think, ‘how does it affect everyone else so we can get to a place where, next week we’re looking at ourselves in the mirror with pretty good health mentally and physically.’”
Although the final injury report with its shocking length was withheld until the last minute possible, there was reason to believe that Vaughn and the Nets were seriously thinking about the wholesale rest for several days even though on Friday night, he was non-cagey about who might play, who might now. Cam Thomas said after the Pacers game that Vaughn had warned him on Friday that he’d be playing a lot of minutes vs. Indiana and Alondes Williams, the Nets two-way, was held out of Friday’s G League game although healthy.
But the strategic moves were accompanied by some tactical, in-game, moves that paid off well. With 6:54 left in the third and the Nets down by 14, Vaughn called for the 1-2-2 zone, something he had kept in his back pocket. For the rest of the way, Brooklyn outscored Indiana 56-39. Why didn’t he use it before? Vaughn was asked post-game. Because, he said, he wanted to use the element of surprise. If he used the zone in the first half, his counterpart, Rick Carlisle, could have adjusted his offense at halftime.
“We didn’t want to give it to him before halftime so they could adjust to it at halftime. So we kept it in our back pocket and little bit of a surprise attack,” said Vaughn smiling.
At the same time, Vaughn switched signals on his offense as well. He knew, as Steve Lichtenstein wrote Sunday, that this group, mostly young and inexperienced players, might not be able to withstand the rigors of big minutes in a big game. After all, they had never played a minute together before Friday. So he gave Patty Mills big minutes and rested Cam Thomas the entire third quarter, giving Thomas the rest he needed to blow out the Pacers in the fourth, scoring 21 points and thoroughly discombobulating the Pacers.
He also adroitly managed the minutes of Yuta Watanabe, returning after 10 games missed with a hamstring strain. Watanabe was ready to supply his heroics at games end as well.
For the Nets, the worst of the season (hopefully) is over. Their early schedule, as tough as any qualitatively as well as quantitatively, is now at an end. They have played one-half of their back-to-backs in one third of the season. Their opponents the rest of the way have, at this point, a cumulative winning percentage of 49.2%. The big distractions associated with Steve Nash’s departure and Kyrie Irving’s suspension are in the rearview mirror (we think.) And because of the strategic move to rest his rotations, his players should be more than ready to go.
Vaughn has also won praise from his players for keeping lines of communications open.
“It means everything and when your coach trusts you and the coach staff trust you,” said Cam Thomas. “You play more freely, play real hard. So I’m just glad I got the coach’s trust and the coaching staff. It helps me a lot.”
The feeling is mutual.
“We talked about before the game that we came here to get a win. And that was a goal,” Vaughn said. “A lot of guys stepped up. We needed everybody, every minute worth, an unbelievable effort. I really felt that we thought we’re going to win the entire night, which is a good feeling.”
Sean Marks could adjust the roster starting Thursday with the unofficial beginning of the trade season. Or he could wait and see how how Vaughn uses his young stars in Thomas and Day’Ron Sharpe. After all, the biggest fan complains have been the need for a back-up guard and a big man. Maybe, after all, they’re already in house. (Sharpe outplaying Myles Turner might even give fans some pause about clamoring for a Turner trade ... doubt it.)
Of course, there could be trades and injuries and controversies ahead. The Celtics and Bucks could start to run away with the East once Robert Williams and Jrue Holiday get back and in game shape. But besides the immediate psychic wonder brought on with the big win, Brooklyn has new confidence, in its roster and its head coach.
Indeed, we are no longer looking at a small sample size. Vaughn is now 14-7 since being elevated to head coach. The Nets have won seven of their last eight, 10 of their last 13 and are now a game and a half out of third in the East.
“I’m officially Brooklyn,” Vaughn told Steve Serby of the Post this week in explaining why he thinks he’s right for the job. “My family’s grown up here. I understand the community. I love the community. I was a part of this organization as a player. I feel I fit this team. This is a team that wants to play hard, needs to be guided to play hard. I appreciate them as individuals, and I think that’s reciprocal.
- Vaughn Helps Shorthanded Nets Engineer A Shocker In Indy - Steve Lichtenstein - Steve’s Newsletter
- SUNDAYS WITH SERBY: Jacque Vaughn (Video) - Dexter Henry - New York Post
- Jacque Vaughn opens up about his Nets rules, stars’ personalities, playing career - Steve Serby - New York Post