Nic Claxton is a big reason the Nets have been playing well lately

Nic ClaxtonPhoto: Getty Images

Thursday night’s playoff rematch between the Boston Celtics and the Brooklyn Nets, like many major NBA regular-season matchups, will be — incomplete.

Kevin Durant is currently out with an MCL sprain and Jaylen Brown is ruled questionable after suffering an adductor injury in the Celtics’ win over the New Orleans Pelicans on Wednesday night.

The game will still feature Kyrie Irving and Jayson Tatum – barring last-minute changes – but one player who will be just as worth watching as the stars is rising star Nic Claxton.

He is currently playing the best basketball of his four-year career. Claxton currently averages 11.9 points per game and 8.3 rebounds while also leading the NBA in blocked shots per game (2.6) and field goal percentage (73.8).

Of all the concerns the Nets had off the court earlier in the season, their basketball weaknesses were seen as size and defense. The Nets are letting one of their best defensemen – Bruce Brown – run free. Given Durant’s aging and undersized backcourt, it was reasonable to assume the Nets would have subpar NBA defense if Ben Simmons couldn’t guard all positions at once.

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Nic Claxton is a big reason the Nets have been playing well lately

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For those who had doubts about the Nets’ defense before the start of this season, they forgot about Claxton. During last season’s embarrassing first-round performance that saw the Nets swept by Celtcs, Claxton and a handful of other roleplayers helped keep those games tight. He didn’t start the series but still played 24.5 minutes per game. When he was down, the Nets’ defensive rating improved by 9.4 points per 100 possessions.

This series was just a glimpse of Claxton’s diverse defensive arsenal. He is her starting center now and has excellent paint. Of those players who have attempted six or more shots per game against them from 6 feet or less from the rim, only Jaren Jackson Jr. keeps opponents at a lower field goal percentage.

Claxton is great on the fringe too. The Nets are shifting everything to defense, and one reason they’re succeeding at that is Claxton’s ability to protect perimeter players. A team that sometimes has Irving, Seth Curry and Joe Harris on the floor at the same time is currently eighth in defensive standings. This is not possible without long players who can change. The Nets have several, and their best might be Claxton.

His biggest weakness is his free throw shooting. Claxton shot over 60 percent from the line in each of the final two months of the previous regular season, so there was hope he was improving. He’s shooting 45.9 percent from the free throw line this season. That gives the Nets two key contributors in him and Ben Simmons shooting less than 50 percent from the charity strip.

It hasn’t sunk the offensive yet. The Nets continue to have the third-best offensive rating in the league. Despite being a poor NBA free-throw taker, Claxton still averages a career-high points per game. Sure, he can catch the chip, but his overall low post game is significantly better than last season, leading the league in field goal percentage. In 2021-22, he made 14.3 percent of his attempts from 5 to 9 feet from the rim. This season he’s converted 45.4 percent from that distance.

Without Durant for a few weeks, it will be a struggle for the Nets to continue their recent climb up the Eastern Conference rankings. However, with Claxton playing like a most-improved-player contender, the Nets know that if they’re healthy going into the postseason, they’ve got just as good a chance as any other team in the east of making the NBA Finals.