Nets using Nic Claxton's defensive presence to their advantage
DETROIT — Veteran LaMarcus Aldridge has taken over as the Nets’ starting center as a player who adds remarkable shooting and some rim protection. But backup Nic Claxton, who missed time earlier this season while struggling with a non-COVID illness, adds a dimension no other big man on the roster can match.
Claxton demonstrated his game-changing ability Friday night in Atlanta, where he entered for the first time with 5:22 left in the third quarter and proceeded to almost totally shut down Hawks star Trae Young to pave the way for a 113-105 Nets comeback victory. Young had 25 points when Claxton entered but he went scoreless for more than 13 minutes and scored just six points the rest of the way on 2 of 7 shooting from the field with three turnovers.
No doubt, Claxton earned a bigger role going forward when the Nets (18-8) face the Pistons (4-21) Sunday night at Little Caesars Arena. The Nets announced on Saturday they will rest James Harden after he played 126 minutes in three games in four days and Paul Millsap will miss the game for personal reasons.
"He’s such a versatile defender," Nets coach Steve Nash said of Claxton. "He’s guarding [center Clint] Capela one minute, he's guarding Trae Young the next. So we can go to our switching defense and just mix it up and keep bodies in front of the ball. When he’s able to guard like that, it makes it very difficult for the other team."
Claxton scored only four points, but they came on two dunks early in the fourth quarter, including a lob from Harden that he flushed for a 95-93 lead.
"Nic brings a different dynamic than any of our bigs on both ends of the ball," Harden said. "Being able to guard elite guards like Trae Young and then, offensively, he’s able to finish, offensive rebound. He brings a different dynamic that we’ve been missing all year long. He had an exceptional game tonight, being ready when Steve called his number."
In the first half, Millsap backed up Aldridge, but Nash went to Claxton for a change of pace. "I didn’t know if my name was going to be called, but…I was ready and I made an impact," Claxton said. "It was really gratifying to go out there and help us get the win."
The 6-11 Claxton is mobile, athletic and has a wingspan that proved to be a terrible obstacle for Young. Asked about the difficulty of guarding such an elusive guard as Young, Claxton said, "By now, people kind of know that’s what I do, and I have a lot of practice guarding guys like that, herky-jerky smaller guards. Guarding Kyrie [Irving in practice], I feel like that definitely helped me prepare for moments like that, and I take a lot of pride in that."
Claxton alternated at times with forward Kevin Durant, who mauled Young at one point when they were assessed double technical fouls for pushing each other even though they are good friends. Durant laughed off the incident, said it was "cool" to guard Young and praised Claxton for his play.
"He’s a situational-type guy right now, and he understands that," Durant said of Claxton. "Tonight, he was incredible. Those two dunks really ignited our team, got our bench going and gave us some energy. We needed that."