Thursday night’s play-off rematch between the Boston Celtics and Brooklyn Nets will be like many big games regular NBA season match – incomplete.
Kevin Durant is currently sidelined with an MCL sprain, and Jaylen Brown is on the suspect list after injuring his adductor during the Celtics Wednesday night’s win over the New Orleans Pelicans.
The game will still feature Kyrie Irving and Jayson Tatum — minus any last-minute changes — but one player who will be as much-watched as the stars is rising star Nic Claxton.
He is currently playing the best basketball of his four-season career. Claxton is currently averaging 11.9 points per game and 8.3 rebounds, and leads the NBA in saves per game (2.6) and goal percentage (73.8).
Of all the concerns the Nets have out of court At the start of the season, their weakness in basketball was seen as stature and defensive ability. The Nets let one of their best defenders — Bruce Brown — run free. Given Durant’s age and such a small setback, it’s reasonable to assume that unless Ben Simmons can defend every position at once, the Nets will have a defense below the NBA’s average.
For those who were dubious on the Nets’ defense prior to the start of this season, they forgot about Claxton. In a shameful performance in the first round of last season that led to the Nets being wiped out by the Celts, Claxton and several other role players helped keep those games going. He hasn’t started in this series, but still plays 24.5 minutes per game. When he was on the floor, the Nets’ defensive rating improved by 9.4 points out of 100 possessions.
That series was just a glimpse into Claxton’s versatile defensive arsenal. He is now their starting center and excels in painting. Among players who have six or more shots six feet or less from the touchline per game, only Jaren Jackson Jr. holding the opponent with a lower scoring rate.
Claxton is also great on the circumference. The Nets turned everything over to defense and one reason they’ve been successful in that is Claxton’s ability to protect the outfielders. A team that sometimes has Irving, Seth Curry and Joe Harris on the floor at the same time is currently eighth in defensive ratings. That doesn’t happen without longtime players who can convert. The Nets have several, and the best of them may be Claxton.
His biggest weakness is the free kick. Claxton shot more than 60 shots in each of the last two months of last season, so there is hope that he will improve. This season, he is shooting 45.9% from the free-throw line. That gives the Nets two key contributors, he and Ben Simmons, who get less than 50% of their charity.
It has yet to sink the offense. The Nets still have the third best offensive rating in the league. Even though Claxton is a poor free thrower in the NBA, he still averages the highest points of his career per game. Sure he can catch the ball, but his whole low-lying game is significantly better than last season, which is why he is leading the league in scoring. In 2021-22, he completed 14.3% of his attempts within 5 to 9 feet of the belt. This season, he is converting at 45.4% from that gap.
Without Durant for several weeks, the Nets will have a hard time continuing their recent uphill climb on the Eastern Conference rankings. However, with Claxton playing as a Most Improved Player contender, the Nets know that if they’re healthy when the post-season period arrives, they’ll have as good a chance as any team in the East to make it. NBA Finals.