LOS ANGELES — If Nets interim coach Jacque Vaughn is building a case to get the interim tag removed, this is Exhibit A.
And B and C, too.
The Nets’ 104-102 victory over LeBron James and the Lakers is their most impressive win of the season, and it’s not close.
All season the Nets have struggled to beat good teams, especially on the road. Tuesday they went into sold-out Staples Center and beat arguably the best. The Nets came in just 8-19 against winning teams — just two of those victories away from home, and neither as impressive as this.
They got a go-ahead bucket from Spencer Dinwiddie (team-high 23 points), then forced late misses from first LeBron James and then Anthony Davis to make it stand up.
“It was an extremely big win for us, especially playing against a team like that, playing their best basketball of the season right now,” said Caris LeVert, who had 22 points and defended James on his miss with nine seconds left. “So it was a huge win for us and our confidence going forward.”
It was always questionable how that confidence would fare after the Nets parted ways with Kenny Atkinson on Saturday morning, GM Sean Marks saying his voice had stopped carrying the same weight in the locker room. Early signs are they’re hearing Vaughn just fine.
James had 29 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists, while Davis added 26 points and eight boards. But the Nets — more aggressive under Vaughn — had seven steals, forced 15 turnovers and got two huge defensive stops when they needed.
The Nets held the Lakers to 22 points in each of the third and fourth quarters. But after Davis’ 3 tied it at 102-all with 43.1 seconds left, Vaughn put the ball in the hands of Dinwiddie, who was called for charges with 4:16 and 2:35 to play. And he made good.
“Credit JV for having the confidence to draw up the last play for me; I appreciate that,” said Dinwiddie, who rewarded that faith with a pullup with 28.8 seconds left. “Given the two offensive fouls you couldn’t have blamed him for going in another direction.”
Dinwiddie hit the 18-footer. Then, after LeVert helped force James into a miss, the Nets needed yet another stop.
“I said this is a 3-ball: We’re either losing this thing or winning,” said Vaughn. “In our favor.”
When Wilson Chandler rotated to take away a James drive, Davis ended up all-too-open for the final look. But he missed and the Nets held on to win for the fourth time in five games.
“Considering how well he was shooting and how talented he is, I’d be lying if I said when I turned around and I saw him butt-naked that I wasn’t [worried], like oh no. But then when he missed, I was like Yes!”
“We really think we can beat anybody. If we play like that we can win against anybody,” said Luwawu-Cabarrot, who added 13 off the bench, including 11 in a 17-5 third-quarter run.
The Nets trailed 73-69 after a Davis layup with 6:42 left in the third. But Brooklyn reeled off seven unanswered points, Luwawu-Cabarrot’s 3-pointer putting them up 76-73.
Clinging to a tenuous 80-78 edge, the French wing followed a conventional three-point play with a 3-pointer. That put the Nets ahead by eight with 1:35 left in the third, and they never trailed again.
“We became the aggressor,” Vaughn said. “We started dictating things.”
Tuesday was a nice notch on Vaughn’s resume to make this his job in the offseason. But he might not have been the only prospective Nets coach working this game. Kyrie Irving has positive history with Lakers assistants Ty Lue and Phil Handy.
Lue was the head coach in Cleveland when Irving hit the game-winner to clinch his lone NBA title. Handy was an assistant on that Cavs team and has had a huge impact on the point guard’s life.
“He’s kind of like my dad in terms of basketball when I’m away from my family. So he’s been influential on my life,” Irving said of Handy to the Undefeated in 2016.
Irving and Kevin Durant — who joined the Nets on this West Coast trip — are sure to have some say in who is the permanent coach. Handy has an in. Vaughn didn’t hurt himself Tuesday.