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Nets elevate Ollie to raise their game

Interim coach hopes to lead late-season playoff push

February 21, 2024 John Torenli, Sports Editor Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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Kevin Ollie came here last summer to help bolster head coach Jacque Vaughn’s staff.

Now, he’ll be leading it for the final 28 regular-season games, and perhaps beyond if the Nets can make a push for the playoffs.

The 51-year-old former assistant was officially named Brooklyn’s interim head coach Tuesday, one day after Nets general manager Sean Marks relieved Vaughn of his duties following a precipitous fall in the Eastern Conference standings.

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“Remember, I played 15 years professionally, 13 years in this league, and never once [had] a coach call a play for me,” noted Ollie ahead of his first practice at the helm.

“I had to get it with grit. I had to get it with determination,” he added. “I had to get it with a mindset that we’re going to get better each and every day. That’s how I coach, that’s what I’m going to demand. I want them to demand that from me, and that’s from day one.”

Vaughn went a combined 71-68 in a pair of head-coaching stints here around his contributions as an assistant for the better part of eight years in the organization.

The basketball lifer, who spent a dozen seasons in the NBA as a speedy and resourceful point guard, guided Brooklyn into the 2020 playoffs after replacing Kenny Atkinson ahead of the Nets’ participation at the league’s bubble site in Florida during the COVID-19 pandemic.

He took over for Steve Nash early last season and helped the Nets earn the No. 6 seed in the East despite the trade-deadline deals that sent the superstar tandem of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving to Phoenix and Dallas, respectively.

Vaughn’s teams were bounced in the opening round via a four-game sweep in both of those postseason campaigns.

But Brooklyn hardly looked playoff-bound this year.

After a solid 13-10 start, the Nets went 8-23, including back-to-back losses to NBA-leading Boston going into the All-Star break.

The second of those, last Wednesday night in Beantown, turned into the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre for Vaughn.

The 50-point thumping was the second worst margin of defeat in franchise history, and most brutal for the Nets in the Brooklyn era, which began in 2012.

Cam Thomas and his Brooklyn teammates suffered a brutal 50-point loss in Boston before the NBA All-Star break. AP Photo by Charles Krupa

Also, the Nets became the first team in the league to suffer a $100,000 fine for violating the NBA’s player-participation policy after Vaughn sat out most of his front-line players during a loss to Milwaukee here on Dec. 27.

Brooklyn was 15-15 before that defeat, but is now sitting at a season-worst 12 games below .500 (21-33) and 2 1/2 games behind Atlanta for the final spot in the East’s play-in tournament for the seventh and eighth playoff seeds in the conference.

Though he threw plaudits at Vaughn on the way out and gushed that he hoped the University of Kansas alum would lead his team for “years to come” after removing his interim tag during last year’s All-Star break, Marks admitted Tuesday before practice that the Nets needed a new voice.

“It’s about the level of compete,” he ceded. “We’re not going to be the most talented team in the league. I’m not an idiot. I totally understand that. But at the same time, this is a talented group of young men out there.

“And my expectations, and I think their expectations, should be to hold each other accountable to do the little things. The effort plays, the loose balls, the contested shots and so forth, diving on the floor.”

Ollie, who previously served as a national championship-winning coach at his alma mater in Connecticut, was quick to point out that the Nets have been lacking in tenacity when it comes to grabbing loose balls and playing aggressive defense.

“These are things that should be expected when you’re in a place that we’re at right now, where we’re clawing and grappling for every single thing we can,” he said.

“That’s what I would hope to see over these next 28 games, and that’s probably, to be quite frank, some things I haven’t seen. The level of effort and the level of compete has not always been there.”

Ollie led the Huskies to the 2014 national title, but eventually was fired UConn in 2018 over a failure to monitor his program after an NCAA investigation.

He disputed the charges and the firing before he agreed to accept a $4 million settlement from his alma mater.

Marks chose Ollie to recharge this unit because he saw the work he had been doing on Vaughn’s staff.

“He’s always carried a great voice in there. He’s very direct with the players. He does hold them accountable,” Marks said. “I think what makes a good coach is to be able to put yourself in those players’ shoes, be able to tell great stories and be brutally honest with guys and I think those are attributes that Kevin absolutely has.”

Ollie’s players will also have to perk up their ears a bit as their new leader is pushing to get his interim tag removed and catapult the Nets back into the postseason.

“You got to be ready,” Brooklyn forward Mikal Bridges told the Associated Press. “Obviously, it’s tough but you know, (the) main goal is to win.

“So we (have) to keep going, keep the main goal the main goal. … It’s gonna be tough and all that but the main thing is winning. Do whatever it takes, you know, to win.”

Forward Mikal Bridges knows the Nets have to refocus and refuel before beginning their playoff push Thursday night in Toronto. AP Photo by Matt Slocum

Ollie will get his initial shot at his first career win as an NBA coach Thursday night when the Nets visit the Toronto Raptors.

Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m.

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