Nic Claxton providing Nets with big defensive boost

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On Sunday it was Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook and Tuesday night it was Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. On Wednesday night, it was Donovan Mitchell.

Usually, when centers end up one-on-one with the NBA’s best guards out on the perimeter, they’re shaking. But Brooklyn’s Nic Claxton is smiling.

“Deep down I’m smiling, because if teams want to continue to do that, they might get a couple of buckets, but I’m going to get more stops than them, definitely. So deep down I’m just smiling,” Claxton said. “I’m ready. I know the scouting report. I’m a huge basketball fan, so I’ve been watching all these guys since I was young.

“So just me being out there, using my IQ, using my footwork, guarding without fouling, it’s fun, honestly. I wasn’t able to switch 1 through 5 last year at all, so me being able to switch, that’s huge. That’s huge for us, especially if teams want to go at me directly. That’s just taking the flow away from other players. And like I said, I might get scored on a couple times, but for the most part I’m good.”

Yes, Claxton’s good, double entendre intended.

After a long arduous rehab from shoulder surgery that ended his rookie year and then a knee injury in training camp, Claxton didn’t make his sophomore season debut until Feb. 23. But since then, he’s been nothing short of a revelation.

Claxton’s ability to switch has let the Nets evolve from the old-school drop coverage they’re limited to with DeAndre Jordan, and move to a more modern switching scheme that will serve them better against elite foes in the playoffs. Helping improve a maligned defense is something he takes pride in.

“Yeah, I feel [that way]. A lot of teams and people will say that that’s a weak spot of our team,” Claxton said. “But when I come in, I just try to be the quarterback of the defense, be as vocal as I can be, switch, guard everybody 1 through 5.

Nic Claxton
Nic Claxton
Getty Images

“Just being active, talking, just trying to be a pest defensively and using our voice. … Switching 1 through 5, that’s when we defend the best, everybody just being on the same page.”

Entering Wednesday’s game at NBA-leading Utah, Claxton had an offensive rating of 119.5, defensive rating of 99.1 and net rating of 20.4, the latter two both team-highs. He’s plus-89 — second-best on the team — in 220 minutes.

“Nic was huge,” coach Steve Nash said. “He’s such a versatile player defensively with his length and athleticism and mobility. He can guard pretty much 1 through 5.

“He’s going to struggle at times on the glass, but a lot of that’s coming out of rotations and stuff. … He’s a threat offensively around the basket, and he’s developing every day. So proud of him, his defensive effort is outstanding, and very valuable to us.”

That value — and Nash’s trust — was made clear over the Nets’ previous four games, when Claxton topped 20 minutes for the first times in his career and responded by averaging 12.5 points on 63.9 percent shooting, six rebounds and 1.8 blocks. He was a stunning plus-40, while Jordan was a terrible minus-43, by far the worst on the team.

Most important, while Jordan continued to start games, Claxton is now finishing them. Jordan didn’t get off the bench in the prior four fourth quarters, except to cheer. Meanwhile Claxton was a plus-23 in his 39 minutes, helping Brooklyn outscore Indiana, Orlando, Washington and Portland 113-86.

Claxton has rapidly emerged as a lob threat, one used often by James Harden.

“I’d say it’s more so chemistry with Harden. He’s finding me, I’m running the floor hard and the game is pretty easy offensively. I don’t have to do much, honestly,” Claxton said. “Just me being more comfortable out there and defensively that speaks for itself. I’m able to switch 1 through 5, as you see. That’s just my game and I look forward to just continuing to polish everything and get better.”

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