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X’s AND O’s: Simplification and gritty play become Jacque Vaughn’s hallmarks

Matt Brooks and Chris Milholen take a look at two sides of Nets head coach Jacque Vaughn: both x’s and o’s and leadership

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Brooklyn Nets v Los Angeles Clippers Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

Since taking over as head coach last month, Jacque Vaughn has instilled simplification and the desire — indeed the need — to work hard on the court, be gritty, be nasty. That’s been the backbone of the Nets’ rise in success.

After going 9-10 in their first 19 games, Brooklyn (17-12) has clicked in the last two weeks, topping off their season-long seven-game homestand with a successful 6-1 record. The fourth-seeded Nets have won four straight contests, winning eight of their last nine games. Sure, the slate of competition was generally favorable for the healthy Nets but keeping it simple from top to bottom is the big takeaway.

“Guys want to win,” Vaughn said postgame. “That’s what happens when you’re playing winning basketball. You’re not thinking about yourself; you’re thinking about the group and how the group can get better and how you can add to the group.”

Vaughn, who holds a 15-7 overall record at the helm this season, has taken full advantage of his head coaching opportunity - an opportunity he has been patiently craving for years. The 47-year-old head coach has led Brooklyn to the second best win percentage since taking over full-time, trailing only the Boston Celtics. That’s pretty good for someone who referred to himself as the “write-in candidate” after being awarded the position.

Vaughn makes it clear what he wants from his players between the lines.

“We’re working toward building that consistency of coming out and setting the pace of what we want to do,” Kyrie Irving said. “You’ll see in the future, we’ll make some changes on the fly with different lineups, guys playing harder. Jacque has made it very clear if you’re not playing hard enough, he’s going to let you know about it. We have guys on the bench who’re willing to do those things, so it makes you take advantage of the time you’re out there and hold everyone else accountable.”

There are obvious differences between he and Steve Nash. The obvious one is that use of timeouts but a less obvious one is his more extensive use of the team iPad to show players in timeouts and at halftime.

“We didn’t have that previously,” said Vaughn. “So that communication, whether it was a clip guys wanted to see at halftime that we talked through, I think that’s where the trust is growing: to be able to communicate, to be able to ask questions, have a little psychological safety where you can ask and not be reprimanded and we try to figure this thing out together.”

The Nets have long had coaching analytics staffers on the bench, tracking game action on their iPad for the coaching staff to call up .. and show it to players.

“Guys obviously learn in different ways — and when they see it on the iPad, it’s the truth,” Vaughn said after the Wizards on Monday. “So we’ll actually huddle around, pull the clip, be able to visually see [the play], how we can get better from it, what actually happened [and] not what you thought happened, and not hurtful or harmful feelings. We’re all just trying to figure it out.”

It’s all about the design principle of KISS, “Keep It Simple, Stupid,” in other words, simplicity guarantees the greatest levels of user acceptance and interaction.

“He’s (Jacque Vaughn) been huge. Just keeping it simple,” added Durant. “We have high expectations for our team, but the process is more important than the end result. Each day matters and Jacque has been preaching that since he got the job. As a player, you like to simplify the game and what you’re doing and that’s what he’s been doing this whole time. Guys have been learning on the fly, but also picking up things quick and applying it quickly so Jacque has been doing a great job for us.”

Outside of KD and Ky displaying their offensive greatness on the court, the supporting cast has stepped up when their numbers have been called from Cam Thomas to Yuta Watanabe. Simplification permits current players to move in and out, new ones to learn fast.

Moreover, the poise we see is derived from confidence which in turn is derived from planning done right, that is, simplicity.

The hustle plays are about grit. If plans go wrong, the connectivity developed by internal grit helps the team to recoup.

“First of all, we want to be a connected group on both ends of the floor,” said KD. “A lot of these plays [hustle plays] that you make, sometimes you just got to be there to protect your teammates. Once we have that in our minds, that if somebody gets beat, we have to be there. Somebody might have made a mistake on a switch or a back-door cut, but we still got to be there.

“I think we’ve been preaching that. The hustle plays come with that. Everybody is buying into it. That’s the toughest part of the game, to be honest: to consistently do that every single night. That’s what great teams do. We got to continue to keep fine-tuning.”