CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Nic Claxton is confident. It’s obvious in the way the Nets center is playing and in the way he’s talking — about being named to the NBA All-Defensive team or better.
“We always knew what we were capable of with everybody healthy, but it’s one thing to actually go out and put the plan into action,” Claxton said of the Nets’ 10-game winning streak, the longest in the league this season. “So it’s good. Our confidence is definitely at an all-time high. We’ve just got to keep things rolling.”
The Nets (23-12) were just 2-5 and 13th in the Eastern Conference when Jacque Vaughn took over as coach. But they’ve gone 21-7 since to vault up to the second-best record in the league. Claxton said it’s not fake or a fluke; it’s the new Nets.
“[It’s] sustainable,” Claxton said. “The talent on our roster speaks for itself. The talent we have, guys who can just go out and get a bucket at will, the shooters, the defense — especially the defense we’ve been playing lately, how consistent we’ve been. So it’s definitely sustainable if we just stay locked-in game-by-game. That’s our challenge.”
While the Nets’ confidence has been buoyed, Vaughn said the same applies particularly to Claxton, who is playing the best and most self-assured basketball of his career.
“You see it in his just the way he carries himself. He’s got a swag about him, which is pretty cool, that he extends onto the floor,” Vaughn said. “I think he feels he impacts us at an unbelievable level on the defensive end of the floor, whether it’s six blocks, whether it’s 10 rebounds, or whatever it is.
“And then the comfort level on the offensive end, where Kyrie [Irving] and Kevin [Durant] will find him, or being able to flash to the elbow and play split game and pivot and make a right-hand runner over somebody. Just feeling good on both ends of the floor.”
The Nets feel good heading into their game Saturday against the Hornets. While Durant and Irving get the bulk of the headlines, Claxton’s contributions have been underrated.
He’s convinced his play will change that, having openly declared making the NBA All-Defensive Team — or even being honored as Defensive Player of the Year — a personal goal.
“Yeah, I mean, when it’s a goal that’s predicated to team’s success, that’s always a plus for the individual and also for the team,” Claxton said.
“So whether it’s me going for Defensive Player, you’re going for a Defensive Team, the better that I play defensively and the more consistent I am, like you said, protecting the rim, guarding the perimeter, one-through-five every single night, the better that the team is going to be. And me being an anchor defensively for our team, defensively and overall, the résumé and everything should speak for itself.”
Claxton entered Friday leading the league in field-goal percentage (74.3 percent), and he clearly has worked on his offensive game, with great kick-out passes, impressive body control for tough buckets on the move, and even hitting 50 percent of his hook shots.
As Vaughn alluded to, Claxton has developed better offensive chemistry with Durant and Irving. But it’s his work on defense that has truly set him apart.
Protecting the rim is a common enough trait for centers, but Claxton also has quick hands and the rare gift of being able to guard one-through-five. He tops the NBA in block rate (7.4 percent), is seventh in defensive rating (107.2 per Basketball Reference) and his combined 101 steals and blocks are second-most in the league.
It’ll take consistency and an extended run for Claxton to get the acclaim he wants. Vaughn’s Nets will reap the rewards of the sweat Claxton is going to put in chasing them.
“As a coach, I love it because that means you’ve got to do the work to have those accolades come your way,” Vaughn said. “And so there’s a tremendous amount of dedication that has to go into it. That’s work on the floor, that’s work off the floor in order to be able to produce on a nightly basis. So for me, I love hearing it, because I know there’s work that goes along with it.”