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Vaughn has Nets poised for playoff push

Brooklyn to begin 24-game stretch run toward postseason

February 23, 2023 John Torenli, Sports Editor Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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Even without recently jettisoned superstars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, the new-look Brooklyn Nets are on track to supersede last year’s results.

Especially if newly extended head coach Jacque Vaughn continues to push them as he has in the wake of all the turbulence and transition they’ve undergone this year.

“I just kept doing my job,” Vaughn said Wednesday after receiving a multi-year pact, terms of which were not disclosed as per team policy, to remain in the job he assumed when Steve Nash was fired following a 2-5 start to the campaign.

He certainly did, but he as plenty of work left to do here.

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The Nets have gone 32-19 since Vaughn stepped in despite Irving’s well-publicized suspension, Durant’s absence from the lineup after spraining his knee in early January and a slew of replacement parts since the dynamic duo was shipped out of Brooklyn earlier this month.

The Nets (34-25) entered last week’s All-Star break in fifth place in the Eastern Conference standings, two games in front of the East River rival New York Knicks and 2 1/2 lengths in front of seventh-place Miami.

Brooklyn beat the Heat, 116-105, at Barclays Center on Feb. 15 in its final game before the league’s annual All-Star break to distance itself from the league’s play-in tournament ahead of the postseason.

Last year, despite having both Durant and Irving in the fold, the Nets had to settle for the No. 7 seed in the East.

They beat Cleveland to grab the seventh spot, but were the only NBA team that competed in a playoff series last season without winning a single game as Boston ran through them in four straight.

These Nets need only to maintain their position for the last 24 games of this regular season, then win a single postseason game to exceed last year’s output.

But of course, Vaughn and his reshuffled roster won’t settle for that.

“For me, I’m excited about the challenge ahead of growing with this group, getting the most out of this group and pushing this group,” Vaughn intimated a week after watching new additions Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson combine for 63 points against Miami.

Both of those starters came in the deal for Durant while former Net Spencer Dinwiddie and Dorian Finney-Smith arrived here from Dallas for Irving.

Nets forward Mikal Bridges hopes to build on his 45-point effort against Miami when Brooklyn visits Chicago Friday night. AP Photo by Jessie Alcheh

Though the names might not shine as brightly on the Barclays Center marquee, Vaughn is not lowering expectations for the 2022-23 campaign.

He has seen it all in his role as assistant and interim head coach with the Nets, whether he was guiding them in a first-round playoff series loss to Toronto at the NBA’s bubble site after replacing Kenny Atkinson in 2020 or jumping in after Nash received his walking papers in November.

The owner of a 39-22 overall record at the helm here, Vaughn also spent a couple of seasons playing for the Nets from 2004-2006, when they were based in New Jersey.

“I’ve seen it all here, whether it’s multiple coaches, it’s the bubble, whether it’s a toenail over the 3-point line, whether it’s trade requests, whether it’s all of the above, and so to still be a part of this organization means a lot to me,” he said.

“That means the way I carry myself on a daily basis, people appreciate it. So there’s something to that, but at the end of the day I just kept doing my job and showing up every single day and ready to rumble every single day.”

That “rumble” to hang on to a playoff spot begins again Friday night in Chicago, when the Nets visit the Bulls (26-33), who are on the outside looking in at the 10th spot in the East, which is the last one available for anyone looking to play their way into the playoffs.

Ironically, the Nets lost to the Bulls, 108-99, at Barclays on Nov. 1 in Vaughn’s first game this season after replacing Nash.

“The message I told the guys after, no excuses,” Vaughn said that night. “Whether it’s back-to-backs, no excuses. Whether the change in scenery today, no excuses. This is what we do for a living. We signed up for it.”

And the Nets have signed up for what general manager Sean Marks described as “years to come” with Vaughn in Tuesday’s team-issued statement announcing the agreement.

Nets general manager Sean Marks has extended head coach Jacque Vaughn for “years to come” here in Brooklyn. AP Photo by Mary Altaffer

Even that endorsement came after there was plenty of speculation regarding whom would be the long-term replacement here in Brooklyn.

“I knew there was some conversation behind the scenes going on, but for me I did not worry about it or get stressed about it or put any additional food on my plate at all,” Vaughn told the Associated Press.

“Just did my job every day and being rewarded for doing that.”

NOTHING BUT NET: The Bulls also ended the Nets’ Brooklyn-best 12-game winning streak in Chicago on Jan. 4. The Nets got their revenge at Barclays on Feb. 9 as Dinwiddie, fresh off arriving here from the Mavericks for Irving, poured in 25 points in a 116-105 victory. … After visiting the Windy City, the Nets will be in Atlanta on Sunday before returning to Downtown Brooklyn next Tuesday to host Milwaukee.

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