The most joyful moment in the Nets’ comeback from 18 points down to capture a 120-108 victory over the Rockets Wednesday night at Barclays Center came in a fourth-quarter exchange between second-year man Nic Claxton and veteran Blake Griffin. Claxton caught a pass deep in the paint, but rather than try to muscle up to the basket over two defenders, he passed to Griffin for a wide-open three-pointer he buried.
With a huge smile Griffin pointed at Claxton as he hustled back on defense. Kyrie Irving had 31 points and 12 assists, and Joe Harris scored half his 28 points in the fourth quarter. But the Claxton-Griffin pairing played a major role in the win.
Griffin was a team-high plus-23 and totaled 11 points, six rebounds and four assists in 22 minutes, and Claxton was plus-19 with 12 points, eight rebounds and one blocked shot in 21 minutes.
"Nic was outstanding," coach Steve Nash said. "We’ve seen his length, athleticism, he just plays so hard. He did make a couple really nice plays — assists, couple tough finishes around the basket, rebounds, tap-outs, deflections, things like that. Defended. Very, very impressed. We need him. He’s maybe our best defender, and with that length and activity, he’s been outstanding for us."
Claxton did not play in the opening quarter, when the Rockets scored 42 points, or in the third quarter. But Nash played Claxton the entire fourth quarter, which begged the question if he now merits consideration as a starter ahead of center DeAndre Jordan. And what will happen to Claxton’s minutes with LaMarcus Aldridge scheduled to make his Nets debut Thursday night against the Hornets?
"Nic has been outstanding, but we have a lot of depth there," Nash said. "We also know Nic’s injury history, and we don’t want to overload him because he is a valuable piece to our team. Right now, we’re in a pretty good spot with him.
"We could have played him more. We see that, too. At the same time, there’s other guys. Jeff [Green] had some really good moments, Blake had some big moments, DJ starts it up for us in both halves. Everyone plays their part. It allows us to develop Nic at the right pace and keep him in that sweet spot where he can be very valuable for us."
Claxton once again figured to come off the bench when the Nets (33-15), who entered Thursday night in first place in the Eastern Conference, faced the fourth-place Hornets (24-22) in the second game of a back-to-back at Barclays Center. He played only 15 games as a rookie before undergoing shoulder surgery, and he missed the first 32 games this season because of knee tendinopathy before playing the past 16.
Claxton’s veteran teammates are impressed with his rapid development. "He didn’t get a full rookie year under his belt and was hurt in the lead-up to this year," Harris said. "For him to be able to come in and contribute right away and now be a focal point for us down the stretch is pretty unbelievable."
For his part, Claxton was thrilled when told Nash called him the Nets’ best defender. "It’s pretty big that he said that, and I definitely believe that," Claxton said. "I believe in myself, especially my defensive abilities. I still got scored on a couple times tonight, but I’ve just got to keep defending and I can definitely be a better off-ball defender. I’m still learning. The game is definitely slowing down, though."
As for the moment he shared with Griffin, Claxton smiled and said, "We just seem to have a little chemistry going. It’s pretty fun playing with him. He has a good personality out there, and I do, too."