Nic Claxton has put the league on notice during a breakout 2022-23 campaign. However, with the Brooklyn Nets facing the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round of the 2023 NBA Playoffs, the Nets big man’s biggest challenge is still ahead of him: MVP frontrunner Joel Embiid.
The Sixers center just turned in the best season of his career, averaging 33.1 points per game on 54.8 percent shooting to claim his second straight scoring title. Despite this, Claxton had success against Embiid during a Jan. 25 matchup in which he held him to 3-of-11 shooting:
Nic Claxton REJECTS Joel Embiid at the rim pic.twitter.com/rh5LrHOEQf
— ClutchPoints (@ClutchPointsApp) January 26, 2023
The 23-year-old said he’s ready for whatever the matchup has in store throughout a series.
“That’s what you live for as a competitor,” he said. “He’s probably gonna win the MVP. It will be a good challenge for myself and the team.”
While confident, Claxton recognized that shutting Embiid down is not in the cards.
“When you play against a guy that averaged 33 points they’re going to score, you just can’t get frustrated, he said. “You got to stay the course and remember the game plan.”
Nets head coach Jacque Vaughn has raved about Claxton’s professionalism this season, whether it be his game preparation, conditioning or dedication to his body. That attention to detail has turned the fourth-year Net into a two-way force this season, ranking second in the NBA in blocked shots and field goal percentage.
“I think he has learned how to play against different centers in the league. How they offer different challenges for him and what his advantages are,” Vaughn said. “You want to lean into your gifts, not your deficiencies. Nic has some gifts, so he’s gonna lean into those. And we’ll try to stay away from those deficiencies. I think we’ll be okay.”
For Claxton, who is giving up over 60 pounds to Embiid, those advantages are length, quickness and athleticism.
“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,” Claxton said Thursday. “Then offensively just making him work also. Picking my spots, knowing when to attack and when to get my teammates involved.”
Those physical gifts were on full display during Brooklyn’s last game in Philadelphia. With Embiid struggling in the first quarter, he and Claxton picked up double technicals after extended trash-talking during the opening period:
Joel Embiid and Nic Claxton have a chat and end up with double technicalspic.twitter.com/7yLCBoXz7Q
— Dime (@DimeUPROXX) January 26, 2023
Claxton said Thursday that he wouldn’t be surprised if he and Embiid exchange words again throughout the series.
“I mean I like to chat on the court,” he said. “I think talking trash, that’s part of basketball. We’ve had some discussions in the past.”
While Claxton will draw the matchup out of the gate, expect Brooklyn to throw a wrinkle or two at Embiid throughout the series.
“Obviously it won’t just be Nic trying to take that challenge,” Vaughn said. “I don’t think I’ve ever hidden the fact that I’m not afraid to try things. That feat doesn’t exist. It just takes belief in your players.”
What would such a wrinkle look like?
“You guys will see Saturday. We’re just going to try and be together, play for each other, do whatever it takes,” Mikal Bridges said. “I think he should win MVP. So it just takes a team. I don’t think anybody can guard him one on one in the world. So, just team defense. You’ve got to play for each other.”
One advantage the Nets hold is their bevy of athletic wing defenders. Between Bridges, Cam Johnson, Dorian Finney-Smith and Royce O’Neale, Brooklyn has the strength and quickness to trap and rotate for stretches to force the ball out of Embiid’s hands. Vaughn’s squad went on a 27-10 second-half run against Nikola Jokic while utilizing that strategy during a Mar. 12 win at Denver:
Quick Nets defense thread
BKN closed the 3rd in DEN on a 27-10 run going small-ball. This play is a great example of how that unit used its speed and length to wreak havoc.
Nuggets off-ball screen for Jokic, Dinwiddie hangs back to prevent the entry pass while Joe shades and… pic.twitter.com/t1ofHDrZIx
— Erik Slater (@erikslater_) March 13, 2023
Finney-Smith has been Brooklyn’s primary center in small-ball lineups, and the veteran admitted he could see himself guarding Embiid for stretches:
“You gotta give him a bunch of different looks,” he said. “He’s probably the MVP … So I wouldn’t be surprised if coach throws a wrinkle out there where I’d be guarding him, fronting him, just trying to make it hard for him.
“You just make it hard for him, wear on his legs. It’s gonna take a lot of bodies. Like I said, it’s gonna be a team effort when you got a guy like that who can also get rebounds on top of the post-ups he’s getting.”
Nic Claxton and the Nets will get their first crack at slowing down the future Hall of Fame center Saturday with Game 1 set to tip-off at 1 PM.
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