There’s no shortage of questions for the Nets as underdogs against the 76ers with the first round of the NBA playoffs beginning on Saturday.
How will Mikal Bridges handle being the focus of the Sixers’ defense? Can Bridges' and Cameron Johnson’s NBA Finals experience in 2021 — along with Spencer Dinwiddie and Dorian Finney-Smith’s Western Conference finals run last season — help a team still building chemistry?
But here’s one question lingering under the surface. Is Nic Claxton the Nets’ most important player in the series?
The fourth-year center gets the first crack at guarding All-Star center Joel Embiid. The two-time defending scoring champion is the favorite to be named the NBA's Most Valuable Player, but Claxton embraced the opportunity to match him for a series.
“That’s what you live for as a competitor. [He’s] probably going to win the MVP. It will be a good challenge for myself and the team,” Claxton said Thursday.
The Nets will toss multiple looks at Embiid, but at 6-11, Claxton is one of the few Nets players with the size to match Embiid. After posting career highs in points, rebounds and blocks, Claxton’s reward is perhaps the toughest task of his young career.
Height means little when Embiid, at 280 pounds, outweighs Claxton by 65 pounds. In two games against the Nets this season, Embiid averaged 31.5 points and 11.5 rebounds while shooting 55.1% from the field.
But in Embiid’s second game against the Nets, a 137-133 76ers' win on Jan. 25 in Philadelphia, he shot only 6-for-18 from the field despite having 26 points and 10 rebounds. For Claxton, it’s not about shutting Embiid down but conceding advantages while leaning on his strengths.
“Just using my footwork, my quickness. Obviously he has however many pounds on me so I’m not going to be able to outmuscle him,” said Claxton, who finished second in the NBA with 2.5 blocks per game. “Offensively, just making him work, picking my spots, knowing when to attack and when to get my teammates involved.”
Another strength? Poise. In the first quarter of that January game, he and Embiid exchanged words and Claxton stayed cool when Embiid got face-to-face with him.
Both drew technical fouls but it boosted Claxton’s play. Claxton finished with 25 points, 11 rebounds and two blocks.
“I think talking trash, that’s a part of basketball. We’ve had some discussions,” Claxton said.
Whatever it takes facing Embiid, the Nets will entertain it. Finney-Smith said that he expects to guard him at times while acknowledging there’s more pressure on rookie Day’Ron Sharpe to provide great minutes off the bench.
“Yeah, just team defense,” Bridges said when asked how the team planned to approach Embiid. “This year, I think he should win MVP. It just takes a team, you know. I don’t think anyone can guard him one-on-one in the world. So just team defense and you’ve got to play for each other.”
But the challenge starts and finishes with Claxton. How he handles it could determine how long the Nets’ season continues and despite the tall task, he’s ready to prove himself against one of the league's best players.
“When you play against a guy that averages 33 points, they’re going to score,” Claxton said. “You can’t get frustrated. You got to stay the course and just remember the game plan throughout the course of the game.”