NEW YORK — How?
How can a team — running largely the same offensive and defensive sets, with the exact same players — swing the pendulum as drastically as the Brooklyn Nets have in the last two weeks.
Twelve days ago, Kevin Durant slapped the scorer’s table in frustration to cope with the inevitable: His Nets were headed to 1-5, down 13 to a lottery-bound Indiana Pacers team despite 11-point odds in their favor.
Yet by Wednesday night, Durant was slapping hands and swapping smiles with all of his teammates after a thorough unpacking of the New York Knicks. It was the Nets’ fourth win in their last six games and the second time they led by at least 35 in one of those victories.
“We were struggling,” Durant said. “We went through a lot, and guys got pride — individual pride — and just wanted to come out and play better.”
There are a number of factors at play in the early season turnaround that has salvaged Brooklyn’s no-longer lost season. The team surprised the biggest of those factors in the locker room after Wednesday’s game.
The unfamiliar sound of the home team celebrating reverberated throughout the Barclays Center corridors.
Newly promoted and full-time head coach Jacque Vaughn recorded his first win as Steve Nash’s official replacement, and as he told his — and finally his — players to enjoy a day off on Wednesday, every player in the locker room jumped up and told him to pump the brakes.
That’s when Durant — the unquestioned leader of the locker room as one of the unquestioned best basketball players on the planet — made a gesture.
He gave his new coach the game ball and also gave a short speech.
“The interim tag is gone,” Durant said. “Head coach’s first win. Congratulations.”
It’s been a long road for Vaughn to reclaim the title he once held as the young coach of a rebuilding Orlando Magic team a decade ago. After all, Vaughn was an assistant-turned interim coach for the Nets years ago when the franchise parted ways with Kenny Atkinson. And despite Vaughn going 7-3 after Atkinson’s dismissal, the Nets still hired Nash — a Hall of Fame point guard but unproven rookie head coach — over him.
The Nets almost passed Vaughn over a second time this week. Even after the Boston Celtics suspended Ime Udoka for having an inappropriate relationship with a female subordinate, the Nets still strongly considered hiring Udoka — even as they endured a political superstorm in the aftermath of Kyrie Irving’s antisemitic social media post.
“I guess I was the write-in candidate in the minds of the elections right now, but I’m OK with that,” Vaughn said. “I said to my wife, I might not have been her first choice and we’ve been together 20 years, so it can all work out. So, off we go.”
It’s too soon to make any declarative statements on whether or not hiring Vaughn was the right move to make. But the early returns are promising.
Through Vaughn’s first five games, the Nets own the NBA’s best defense. No opponent has scored more than 98 points against Vaughn this season.
How did a bottom-five NBA defense become the league’s best overnight?
“They’ve obviously rallied around each other. They’ve rallied around the coaching staff. They’ve rallied around JV,” GM Sean Marks said after announcing Vaughn as the full-time head coach on Monday. “He’s been the catalyst for that, so I’ve got to give him credit.”
There are enough flowers to go around, and some, without question, must go to the general manager.
The Nets are only four months removed from Durant’s seismic trade request, followed by the “trade-me-or-fire-boffum” ultimatum he issued Nets ownership.
Marks never wavered. He built the roster as if Durant would be suiting up on opening night. He did not force a trade for pennies on the dollar, a move Durant said he appreciated as a sign of his greatness.
All of Marks’ moves have paid dividends. Maybe this will finally be the season his peers acknowledge him with Executive of the Year honors.
Edmond Sumner, fresh off a lost season following an Achilles injury, is playing his best basketball as the starting point guard in Irving’s absence. Royce O’Neale has broken into the starting lineup and has flexed his playmaking skills outside of his steady three-point shooting and defense. Even Yuta Watanabe, who Marks signed to a non-guaranteed contract this offseason, earned a role in Brooklyn’s rotation before injuring his ankle earlier this week.
Not to mention each of the second and third-year players who get steady minutes — specifically Nic Claxton, Cam Thomas and David Duke Jr. — have taken visible strides year-over-year.
And now the recently injured players are starting to turn a corner.
Seth Curry and Joe Harris are each recovering from tricky ankle surgeries performed this calendar year. Curry had his first impactful game of the season against the Knicks, scoring 23 points on 6-of-11 shooting from downtown. Harris is now coming off back-to-back double-digit scoring outings. After battling foot soreness, he finally has air under his three-point shot and reinvigorated life on the defensive end.
Even Ben Simmons is starting to look better. After missing an entire season, getting offseason back surgery, then having the fluid drained from his swollen left knee, Simmons says he is pain-free. He is flashing the speed that made him an impossible open-court check. Barclays Center exploded when he cleaned up Durant’s missed 3 with a two-handed put-back dunk against the Knicks on Wednesday.
Simmons is not remotely close to his old, perennial All-Star self, but he, like his recovering teammates, like his team, is starting to turn a corner.
“It feels good; just getting my legs back, feeling like myself a little bit more easy,” he said. “It’s a good feeling to see progress each game.”
There’s another wild card in Brooklyn: T.J. Warren, who has been cooking in the proverbial hyperbolic time chamber since signing with the Nets this offseason. Warren has missed each of the last two seasons with stress fractures in his foot, but the last time played, he was averaging about 27 points and six rebounds for the Indiana Pacers in the Orlando Bubble.
It’s fair to assume Warren will reach his optimal level of play because Sumner, Harris, Curry and Simmons are each on track or ahead of schedule with their injury rehab. Even Durant, who missed the entire 2019-20 season recovering from a ruptured Achilles, is playing better basketball in Brooklyn than he did pre-injury.
And he’s the one pushing for more from those who are still on the road to recovery.
“We just demand the level of play that we need [from them],” Durant said. “Can’t baby nobody through no injuries. If you on the court, you on the court, and that’s how they all feel. If you can’t play, then go rehab. But once you’re out there, we expect you to do your job — and nobody’s out there complaining about being injured.”
These are still the same players, minus Irving, whose evaporated scoring punch should have been crippling for a Nets team once exclusively built on the foundation laid by its stars.
In Irving’s absence, the Nets have simply worked harder.
It’s how they hung a record-setting 42-point victory on the Wizards at Capital One Arena, how they lapped a team coached by Tom Thibodeau, and how they nearly pulled off a five-game winning streak had it not been for Durant’s anomalous crunch-time missed free throw in the two-point loss in Dallas.
“We’re playing harder on the defensive end. That’s something that we’re really trying to build on because defense wins games. I know it’s cliche, but it’s the truth,” said Sumner, who scored 18 points in 19 minutes against the Knicks and has started at the point in each of the Nets’ last four games. “Losing. You lose some games that you felt you should have won, and you look back at it, and you were giving up easy baskets. There’s no second efforts, no helping each other.”
Sumner said the team film sessions have been honest, with players calling each other out for “unacceptable” defensive effort.
“Us not playing hard is not acceptable. Us not caring on the defensive end is just not acceptable,” he said. “The schemes are still the same; we’re doing the exact same stuff. I just feel like we’re covering for each other. If I get beat off the bounce, I know somebody is right there to pick me up. I feel like we’re really just coming together. … We’re a lot more games in, and we’re willing to sacrifice, so we’re really trusting guys more.”
And in comes the elephant in the room — the Nets have hit their stride without their second-best player.
It remains unclear when Irving will complete the requirements needed to return to the floor after the Nets deemed him “unfit to be associated with” the franchise. He is serving a minimum five-game suspension for conduct detrimental to the team, but the Nets outlined six time consuming steps he must complete before returning to action — including meeting with both the Anti-Defamation League and Jewish leaders in Brooklyn, condemning the film “Hebrews to Negroes: Wake Up Black America,” denouncing antisemitism and completing sensitivity training.
As of Wednesday, Marks had no update on Irving’s progress back to the court. Marks has yet to speak with Irving directly following the suspension. He has only spoken with Irving’s representatives, and it’s considered unlikely the star guard meets the necessary benchmarks to return by Nov. 13 against the Los Angeles Lakers, which would be the first game after his five-game suspension Irving would be eligible to play.
How will the Nets approach reintegrating Irving — who has picked up a reputation as a ball stopper due to his superior offensive gifts — into a free-flowing offensive system? Can they keep the same defensive energy? Will he accept the individual challenge on the defensive end?
That’s what comes next for a Nets team finally hitting its stride without its superstar guard. Folding Irving, provided he returns from his suspension, into the rotation will be easier said than done.
“We showed two clips at halftime: the two clips were us shifting [defensively] very much,” said Vaughn. “Covering for each other, the talk behind it is not going to be perfect. That’s what we talked about. The basketball isn’t perfect, but you cover for your teammate and he covers with someone else and we can live with it.”