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Nets are already showing improvement under Jacque Vaughn, but is it sustainable?

NEW YORK — Edmond Sumner sprinted to the corner in transition, stuck his hand in the air, and called for the ball. Kevin Durant, keenly aware that all 10 eyes on the defense were fixated on him as he crossed the timeline, spotted Sumner and slung a cross-court skip pass right into his shooting pocket. Catch, rise, fire: Before the Knicks knew what had hit them, Sumner had splashed through his third triple of the first quarter, staking the Nets to a 16-point lead.

What stood out about Sumner’s call for the ball and quick-fire release — well, besides the part where he turned to the stands for a brief celebration with the Brooklyn crowd — was how freely and easily it came in the flow the Nets had found against their cross-river rivals. Sure, the 6-foot-4 combo guard had missed 12 of the first 15 3-pointers he’d attempted in Brooklyn. But for Sumner, who’s just getting his legs back under him after missing the entire 2021-22 season rehabilitating a ruptured left Achilles tendon, those misses weren’t nearly as important as the fact that he’d just made two in a row. When you’re feeling it, you’re feeling it, you know?

“I feel like once I’m enjoying it, and emotionally into the game, the game’s just so much easier,” Sumner told reporters after the contest. “You’re not overthinking. You’re just playing out there.”

That kind of ease, the freedom to just play, has been exceedingly difficult to come by for the Nets in the season’s opening weeks, as a campaign that began with shoddy defense and a 1-5 record devolved into controversy, chaos and, eventually, a coaching change (if not necessarily the one NBA insiders anticipated). You could see it on the court at Barclays Center on Wednesday, though — in little-known Sumner breaking out, in Seth Curry rediscovering his shooting touch, in Ben Simmons looking increasingly comfortable off the bench, and in Brooklyn blitzing the Knicks in a 112-85 blowout.

One common denominator in all the good vibes, perhaps: the acting-no-more head coach who finally has the leeway to get a little more comfortable pacing the Nets sideline.

Jacque Vaughn had won games as the Nets’ head coach before — seven as the interim boss in 2020, after Kenny Atkinson’s ouster, and two more in the past week, when he stepped in following Steve Nash’s departure. Wednesday, though, marked his first victory as the full-fledged, no-qualifiers-necessary, officially elevated head coach of a franchise with which he’s spent more than a decade as a player, coach and — as he described himself in his pregame news conference — “loyal servant.”

After a wire-to-wire win that Brooklyn led by as many as 35 points, Vaughn’s players saluted that service:

“All the guys have responded to how he wants us to play,” Durant said after the win, praising Vaughn for “simplifying a lot of stuff” for a Nets team that, after the last couple of weeks, could probably do with a bit less complexity. “I’m looking forward to how we progress after this.”

The Nets will likely face a higher degree of difficulty on their upcoming four-game West Coast road trip than they did against the Knicks, who sleepwalked through the entire night, shooting just 32 percent from the field and looking largely disinterested in playing defense. (“We weren’t ourselves tonight,” Knicks forward R.J. Barrett told reporters after the game.) But while you can’t control who you play, you can control how you play, and on Wednesday, the Nets — who disrupted Jalen Brunson by having Sumner pick him up full-court from the opening tip and who shared the ball to the tune of 30 assists on 42 field goals — played like a team starting to figure out how it wants to play.

Durant, as always, led that charge. When Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau tried to defend him straight up with Cam Reddish, Durant torched the young swingman, scoring eight points on four shots while dishing out five assists against the overmatched 23-year-old, according to NBA Advanced Stats player tracking. When New York sent extra help, Durant made the simple play, found the open man and trusted teammates like Sumner to make the shot. When the smaller Nets were having a hard time keeping the Knicks off the offensive glass, Durant tracked back to rebound. He exhibited total control of the game en route to his first triple-double of the season — 29 points, 12 rebounds, 12 assists and just one turnover in 34 minutes of work.

“Everybody’s been positive, and honestly, it starts with [Durant],” said Curry, who exploded for 23 points in 23 minutes on 6-for-11 shooting from long distance, his best outing since returning from arthroscopic ankle surgery. “Bringing a good mindset to the team. Never complaining about the stuff that’s going on, playing hard, being unselfish. And guys are just following that lead.”

Durant playing at his customary All-NBA level, combined with advancing health from returning contributors like Curry and Joe Harris, gives Vaughn more tools to deploy as he tries to get the Nets off their early season schneid. In the absence of primary ball-handler Kyrie Irving, Vaughn used a half-dozen players — Durant, Curry, Sumner, Royce O’Neale, Cam Thomas and Ben Simmons — to bring the ball up the floor and initiate offense, spreading the Knicks out, carving up the defense at the point of attack and creating a drive-and-kick rhythm that allowed Brooklyn to lock into a groove early and stay there all night.

“We have multiple ball-handlers out there. We can play small,” Vaughn said. “Kevin can handle, which is very unusual, and we can bring smalls in to set screens. So we’re just taking advantage of the spacing, and guys are just playing freely, which is great to see.”

Playing freely. It’s a simple enough idea: Flank Durant with a screener and three shooters, and you’re going to be awfully tough to guard. The results haven’t always looked exactly the way general manager Sean Marks and Co. envisioned it in the early going, but Vaughn emphasized the value of the Nets sticking with their process throughout offensive possessions — execute the action, trust the pass, and “spray that thing” — irrespective of whether or not the shot goes down.

“We keep doing that, we’ll be all right,” he said.

The key to a significant uptick for these Nets, though, comes on the other end of the floor. What was the worst defense in the NBA during Nash’s final games has started to look downright competent under Vaughn’s stewardship: Brooklyn enters Thursday smack dab in the middle of the pack in defensive efficiency, according to Cleaning the Glass, and has clamped down even tighter than the league-leading Bucks since Vaughn took the reins.

You can chalk some of that improvement up to just, you know, trying more. “Honestly, I think it’s just playing harder,” Sumner said after the game. “Schemes are still the same. We’re doing the exact same stuff.” Some of it also stems from cold opponent shooting: In Vaughn’s three wins at the head of the bench, the Wizards, Hornets and Knicks shot a combined 34-of-119 (28.6 percent) from deep.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 09:  Julius Randle #30 of the New York Knicks drives against Royce O'Neale #00 of the Brooklyn Nets during their game at Barclays Center on November 09, 2022 in New York City.  User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
The Nets' defense has improved since Jacque Vaughn has been at the helm. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images) (Al Bello via Getty Images)

That likely won’t sustain; Vaughn realizes that and highlighted “fouling and defensive rebounding” as more sustainable pathways to improvement. So far, so good: At the time of Nash’s firing, the Nets were grabbing just 64.1 percent of opponents’ misses, while committing 23.4 personal fouls per game; in five games under Vaughn, the rebounding rate is up to 70.7 percent, and the whistles are down to 21.6 per game.

Neither are anything close to elite marks, but both represent the kind of bumps that can help limit the second-chance opportunities and extended possessions that have plagued Brooklyn’s defense. Keep those improvements coming while getting the Durant-plus-shooters offense humming — and finding more success with the Simmons-plus-shooters reserve lineups that Vaughn trotted out against the Knicks — and the Nets just might climb out of the crater they’ve dug themselves.

“We don’t want this to be a honeymoon stage for us,” Durant said. “You want to continue to keep pushing through — finding ways to get better, finding ways to turn those weaknesses into strengths, and keep pushing from here.”

While Durant and the rest of the Nets keep pushing, they’ll also keep waiting — to find out when (if?) their All-Star point guard might rejoin them.

Marks fielded questions before the game about whether the suspended Irving, whose banishment from the team sparked a small protest outside Barclays Center by “several members of a Black Hebrew Israelite group based in the Bronx,” had moved any closer to satisfying the multiple conditions the Nets set forth for him to return to the organization. “On the Kyrie front, when we have news to share and updates, we will do so at the appropriate time,” he said. “As of now, there is nothing to share.”

Well, except for the fact that the GM hasn’t spoken to Irving since the suspension. (Though he has “talked with [Irving’s] representatives.”) Neither, for that matter, has Vaughn, who didn’t want to overstep while serving as an assistant coach, though he allowed that things “could change going forward in the position that I’m in now.”

A lot could change, with Vaughn now firmly entrenched in the first chair. Thanks in part to what Curry called the “fresh energy” that Vaughn has brought to his new role, some things already have.

“Again, it’s just — I look at the camaraderie that the players have shown [under Vaughn]," Marks said before the game. “They’re having fun. They’re enjoying each other.” The Nets still have a long way to go. Given how the last month has gone, though, actually having some fun playing basketball seems like a pretty solid start.