Nets head coach Jacque Vaughn is no stranger to strategy meetings ahead of a playoff series. Brooklyn’s first-round matchup with Philadelphia will mark the team’s fifth consecutive year in the postseason.
Vaughn, who spent six years with the Nets as an assistant before being promoted this season, has played a role in the preparation for each of those.
Brooklyn has a week off leading up to Game 1 Saturday. For Vaughn and the Nets’ coaching staff, that means hunkering down in the HSS Training Center to devise a gameplan against the high-powered 76ers.
“I love it,” Vaughn said Tuesday of preparing and adjusting throughout a series. “I don’t think I’ve ever hidden the fact that I’m not afraid to try things. That fear doesn’t exist. It just takes belief in your players.”
This year’s preparation will revolve around slowing down MVP frontrunner Joel Embiid. The Cameroon native, who didn’t start playing basketball until age 15, brought his game to another level in his seventh season.
Embiid led the league in scoring at 33.1 points per game on 54.8 percent shooting, becoming the first center to win back-to-back scoring titles since Bob McAdoo in 1975. Following Tuesday’s practice, Vaughn said that prepping for a player of Embiid’s caliber is a collaborative process:
“It’s a group effort. We talked a long time last night,” he said. “You’re not only discussing what has happened but you’re discussing what potentially could happen. You gotta discuss rotations and situational things, special situations. So he’s a load and he’s proven that he can show up and play. So we gotta make it tough for him.”
JOEL EMBIID 50 PIECE
— NBA (@NBA) April 5, 2023
Mikal Bridges joined the list of players voicing support of Embiid for MVP. The 26-year-old said Brooklyn’s defense against the future Hall of Famer will be a joint effort:
“Just team defense. Play together,” Bridges said following Tuesday’s practice. “Obviously he’s been doing it for all these years. This year, I think he should win MVP. It just takes a team, you know? I don’t think anybody in the world can guard him one-on-one. So just team defense. You’ve got to play for each other.”
Breakout center Nic Claxton will draw the assignment on Embiid. However, the Nets are stocked with high-level defensive wings in Bridges, Cam Johnson, Dorian Finney-Smith and Royce O’Neale.
That group’s length and athleticism will play a significant factor as Brooklyn varies coverages against the Philly big man.
This is the kind of defense I can see Brooklyn playing on Embiid. Bridges has such a high IQ as a doubler. Perfect timing on this one with the rotation behind it.
One of the Nets’ main advantages in this series is their speed. They should lean into that defensively. pic.twitter.com/zwHrMnPDhQ
— Erik Slater (@erikslater_) April 11, 2023
The Nets also recognize the importance of limiting Embiid’s trips to the free-throw line. The former number-one pick leads the league in free-throw attempts this season, averaging 11.7 per game while shooting 85.7 percent.
“The challenge is on everyone’s mind. I think the big thing with us is how often he gets to the line,” Joe Harris said. “12 free throw attempts a game. I don’t think you’re gonna completely limit his scoring ability but you can limit some of his free ones. He shoots 86% from the line, so if you can limit him being there even a little bit, I think it can be helpful for us.”
Vaughn echoed Harris’ assessment when speaking on his team’s points of emphasis:
“You have to be ok with some of the shots that he’s going to take and some that he’s going to make,” the coach said. “The free ones we can’t give to him – the reach-ins, the tap on the arm, the sweep through – we just gotta be smart and disciplined in how we guard him.”
“The biggest part is making him earn baskets. So, that isn’t free throw attempts where no one is guarding you at the line. How many times can we defend possessions without fouling? That will be a huge key to the series. How it is officiated, the physicality piece of it, that piece is going to be very, very interesting to the series for sure with him.”
With Claxton’s length and athleticism, along with an abundance of athletic wings, the Nets can change coverages against Embiid on a night-to-night basis. And Vaughn said there’s not much he isn’t willing to try as his team looks to pull off a shocking upset:
“There’s no limit,” he said of the players Brooklyn can put on Embiid. “There’s no limit to tenacity and sweat equity and giving what you got. We only got a couple guys his size, but we got some guys that are gonna play hard.”
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