NEW YORK — Ahead of the Nets’ must-win game against the Wizards on Sunday, interim head coach Jacque Vaughn called it.
Both the Nets and Wizards are short their best players in Orlando. For the Brooklyn, there’s no Kyrie Irving, Spencer Dinwiddie, DeAndre Jordan, Taurean Prince or Wilson Chandler. For Washington, there’s no Bradley Beal (shoulder) or Davis Bertans.
Vaughn knew both teams would have to compensate for their lack of star power by upping their compete level.
“It’s going to be a collective effort for us to win that effort and energy game really on both ends of the floor,” he said pregame.
But Vaughn also knew he had three aces in the hole, and those aces struck when it mattered most.
The Nets may be without both Irving and Dinwiddie, but they still have three core players available: Caris LeVert, Joe Harris and Jarrett Allen. Those three helped seal the deal, leading Brooklyn to a 118-110 win over the Wizards on Sunday.
“Yeah those guys have been with us for the longest and really set the tone for us,” Vaughn said postgame. “We talked about being very strategic in leading up to this game and leading their minutes up to this point. So they played more minutes than they have been and they responded extremely well and led our group tonight.”
Brooklyn’s ‘Bubble Big 3’ combined for 83 points, or 70% of the Nets’ scoring. LeVert led the way with 34 points. Allen recorded his ninth-career 20 and 10 game, finishing with 22 points, 15 rebounds and a block. Harris delivered in the clutch, turning in 27 points on 10-of-13 shooting from the field and 6-of-7 shooting from deep. Harris hit back-to-back threes to tie the game at 98 midway through the fourth quarter.
“We kinda knew what we were getting into coming into this game with me, Joe, Caris. Everybody knew what they had to do,” said Allen. “Everybody knew the gameplan. JV told us — well, not told us but we hear in the media what he’s been saying — and we were just prepared to go out there and give our bodies.”
The win gives the Nets a chance to exhale.
The Wizards are the ninth in the Eastern Conference and entered Sunday only six games behind eighth-placed Brooklyn. A Washington win would have moved the team to five games behind the Nets. Ninth seeds only need to be four games behind the eighth seed to force a play-in tournament, and with a shorthanded roster, the Nets don’t project to win many more games.
“It’s huge. You look at the schedule, you look at the standings. You realize the importance of teams that are all jockeying in the same position,” said Harris. “We’re obviously competing to try to get into the playoffs, and there’s no guarantees. Obviously with the play-in format … Orlando, Washington … these games are extremely important for us.”
Early on in the game, the Nets looked like they were headed the wrong way. Washington got off to an 11-2 start as Brooklyn missed nine of its first 10 shots. Things also began to look grim as Wizards center Thomas Bryant put the Nets into the torture chamber.
Bryant, a Rochester native, scored 30 points and shot 4-of-6 from three. He was animated, butting heads with the stanchion and gesturing often as he dominated from the field.
But Bryant alone wasn’t able to carry the Wizards to a win. The Nets held their opponent to 9-of-31 shooting from deep while converting on 11 of their own 33 attempts.
Brooklyn can bask in its glory for now, but they have another challenge on the horizon. Giannis Antetokounmpo and the loaded Milwaukee Bucks are next on the schedule. Unlike the Wizards, the Bucks are fully healthy, locked-and-loaded and have their sights set on a championship.
“We have a lot of tough games coming up, and the mentality, the approach has got to be exactly the same as this one,” Harris said. “We’re hungry to try to get a win. We’re hungry to compete.”