From behind the YES Network microphone, Jacque Vaughn cracked a smile.
For most of Saturday’s 136-121 win against the 76ers, the Nets’ defense had continued reversing a concerning early season trend.
There were individual strides, such as Cam Thomas.
There were team strides, too — the “corporate knowledge,” as Vaughn called it.
And everything added up to the Nets possessing the NBA’s eighth-best defensive rating (114.0) since Jan. 5 after their win at Wells Fargo Center, when they allowed 82 points across the first 36 minutes before surrendering 39 in Philadelphia’s fourth-quarter burst.
“I wish we would’ve not given up those 3s at the end of the game,” Vaughn joked during the head coach’s press conference. “That would’ve helped our defensive rating. That’s all I was thinking about over there.”
The improved defense hasn’t translated to consistent victories yet, as the Nets (20-28) have gone 5-8 during this stretch.
Three of those wins occurred in their past four games.
But they have provided a glimpse at what was expected to emerge as a strength — until the Nets unveiled constant reminders of how porous their defense became after the trade deadline last year and how they hadn’t discovered a solution to fix it.
“We were searching to see how we were gonna turn people over,” Vaughn said. “We’re actually turning people over more so than we were when we were searching for turning people over, so it’s interesting how you can create turnovers by being aggressive, knowing what you’re doing and positionally being in the right place.”
The Nets’ defensive rating of 117.1 across their first 35 games sat 23rd in the league, and during a season-altering spiral of 17 losses in 21 games, the problems were glaring.
They weren’t “guarding in general,” Mikal Bridges said in December, and that accounted for pick-and-roll coverages, rotations, a little bit of everything.
This was supposed to be a campaign where the Nets added different layers to that unit.
Vaughn hinted at those changes to The Post’s Brian Lewis before the season, where he referred to himself as a “defensive coordinator with the headset on” who could direct his players into different schemes depending on the opponent — and then flip everyone into a different structure a few possessions later.
If everything went right, the Nets would still remain in sync.
That took time. There were growing pains as switching and drop coverage — instead of mostly just switching — blended together.
When the calendar flipped to January, though, the Nets averaged 8.6 steals and 14.2 turnovers per game, up from 6.2 and 11.6 to start the season.
And for most of Saturday’s game, that progress materialized again. They recorded three steals and forced five turnovers.
They used different coverages on 76ers star Tyrese Maxey — especially with Joel Embiid and three other starters out — and impressed Vaughn with an ability to seamlessly implement everything from practice.
“I mean, you try getting some simple actions like pick-and-roll stuff,” Maxey told reporters after scoring 23 points, “but they made it difficult because they trapped and did different things like that.”
When their quest for a postseason berth started to slip away, the Nets built a foundation to turn their season around.
Vaughn continued to “promote” promising signs of individual development, too, with Thomas, including a clip from Saturday’s game before halftime that featured a strong box-out after a shot.
Thomas’ defensive rating has improved to 110.9 the past 13 games after ballooning to 120.2 after his first 26.
His growth has made the Nets a better team, Vaughn said.
The collective growth helped with that, too.
They still need to string wins together to save their season, and an offense that’s starting to click could help with that, but the past month — and especially the past four games — has created a defensive blueprint.
“We’ve got guys who can play defense,” Ben Simmons said. “I think it’s a collective thing, and we can’t get lost in the offensive piece of it. I think when we play defense and we get stops, the offense is easy.”