It’s becoming increasingly difficult to think of another head coach more fit to lead the Brooklyn Nets into the future than current interim coach Jacque Vaughn. His resume now includes wins against the three best teams in basketball: LeBron James’ Los Angeles Lakers, Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Milwaukee Bucks and Kawhi Leonard’s Los Angeles Clippers, who the Nets beat decisively Sunday night, 129-120.
The Clippers were without two of their best players: Paul George (rest) and Sixth Man of the Year candidate Montrezl Harrell (family emergency), as well as defensive irritant and starting point guard Patrick Beverley (left calf strain). The Nets, of course, have a sizable injury/absence list of its own: Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, Spencer Dinwiddie, DeAndre Jordan, Taurean Prince, Wilson Chandler and rookie Nic Claxton each did not travel with the team for the Orlando restart.
The Clippers still had two of the best players on the floor: Leonard, a two-time champion and two-time Finals MVP, and reigning Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams. But the Nets had the next two best players on the court.
Caris LeVert continues to flash stardom. He torched the Clippers to the tune of 27 points on 10-of-17 shooting from the field, while Joe Harris finished with 25 points on 10-of-16 shooting. Tyler Johnson also played his best game as a Net, bringing 19 points on 5-of-9 shooting from three off the bench — including the dagger of a deep three that gave Brooklyn a 127-118 lead with less than 30 seconds to go in the fourth.
Ultimately, Vaughn improved to 6-2 as interim coach of the Nets — 2-0 before the league’s March 11 coronavirus hiatus and 4-2 with two games to go in the Orlando bubble.
Their win over the Clippers, along with the Orlando Magic’s 122-119 overtime loss to the Boston Celtics, clinched Brooklyn’s standing as the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference. They will officially avoid the Bucks in the first round of the playoffs — a major win for Vaughn in his battle to retain his job next season.
The Nets got off to as hot a start as one could imagine. They scored 45 points in the first quarter, second-most in franchise history, led by a red-hot Harris, who made all four of his threes, and LeVert, who scored 21 points in the opening period.
Brooklyn took a 21-point lead into the second quarter, and an 11-point lead into halftime.
The Clippers needed Leonard’s individual dominance to turn this one into a game. Leonard scored the last points of the first half, then rattled off 11 straight and unanswered points to begin the third period. His run obliterated what was once a 21-point Nets lead.
But Leonard eventually cooled off. He finished with 39 points on 14-of-25 shooting from the field and 4-of-7 shooting from downtown. But without George and Harrell, the Clippers could not match the Nets’ firepower. Williams scored 18 points but shot 5-of-13 from the field. Marcus Morris scored 15 points, and impressive guard Terance Mann brought 14 points off the bench with only one missed shot for the Clippers.
The Nets now only have two more games left on the schedule and both will be tough: They play the same Magic team that defeated them in the Orlando bubble opener, then will finish the regular season against the Portland Trail Blazers, a Western Conference team jockeying for playoff position.
The Nets, though, just came away with another statement victory, and the biggest statement is this: Jacque Vaughn is more than capable as a head coach.
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