The Nets (43-24) carried a season-worst four-game losing streak into their game against the Nuggets (44-23) and leading MVP candidate Nikola Jokic Saturday night in Denver. Poor defense, especially in the fourth quarter has been a major factor in their slump to third-place in the Eastern Conference, so it figured 6-11 defensive specialist Nic Claxton was due for a larger role defending Jokic.
When the 6-11 Claxton recovered from knee tendinopathy and joined the Nets in February, he quickly demonstrated his defensive aptitude in addition to averaging 5.5 points, 5.0 rebounds and 1.1 blocks. In the 25 games he played before entering quarantine for eight games because of health and safety protocols, Claxton had a positive plus/minus figure in 17 games and never was worse than minus-4 in the other eight.
He returned two games ago and was limited to five minutes Tuesday at Milwaukee but played 19 on Thursday at Dallas. Nuggets center Jokic has been the most effective player in the NBA all season, averaging, 26.4 points, 10.9 rebounds, 8.5 assists and 1.4 steals while shooting 41.1% from three-point range and 56.8% overall.
But Claxton has the length, athleticism and mobility to make things harder on Jokic. "Jokic’s work this year speaks for itself," Claxton said after the Saturday morning shootaround in Denver. "He’s an MVP candidate. We just have to throw a lot of bodies at him, be active, make sure we’re communicating on defense, not let him affect the game with his passing. He’s real skilled offensively. We’ve just got to be locked in on that. We have a pretty good plan."
At one point earlier this season, coach Steve Nash described Claxton as the Nets’ best defender, and he also had a few games where he made an offensive impact thanks to nice chemistry with James Harden, who missed his 17th straight game against the Nuggets while recovering from a strained right hamstring.
Now Claxton is trying to regain his conditioning and consistency with just five games left before the playoffs. "It’s nothing to worry about," Claxton said. "I'm still a great defensive player. And when James gets back, it'll make the game a lot easier for everybody offensively and defensively."
Asked if he actually came down with COVID-19 following the Nets’ April 18 game in Miami or if he entered quarantine because contact tracing showed he was exposed, Claxton explained, "I was testing positive for COVID, but I didn’t have any symptoms. So I was just stuck in Miami, quarantining for about 10 days or so and I really wasn’t able to do much.
"It’s just tough having to sit like that and then coming out here having to play. It’s just another obstacle. It’s nothing that I can’t conquer."
Certainly, Claxton’s absence impacted the Nets’ play recently in addition to the extended loss of Harden, who has been a vocal presence on the sideline and is nearing his return. Claxton said Harden is like "an extension of the coaching staff" who pushes him.
"He’s always on us about defense because that’s big," Claxton said. "That’s where I’m going to impact the game. So, it’s me just being as sharp as I can defensively."
As for how the Nets were holding up as a team heading into the fourth game of a trip that concludes Tuesday in Chicago, Claxton said they aren’t feeling any special pressure.
"It’s the first time, I think, all season that we’ve hit some adversity and it’s good that it’s coming right before the playoffs and we’re about to have our guys back," Claxton said, referring to Harden’s imminent return. "Honestly, it’s nothing to worry about. Of course, we’ve got to sharpen up a lot of things, especially defensively. The offense, everything is going to come together."