The Brooklyn Nets opened up their five-game road trip in Portland on Friday night with some different looks in the rotation, some by choice, some by necessity.
With DeAndre Jordan out with a sprained ankle, the Nets needed to fill minutes at center. Jarrett Allen took on a bigger load, playing 36 minutes compared to his season average of 27.1, but coach Kenny Atkinson had a few different directions he could have gone in after that.
Atkinson went with rookie Nic Claxton, and got a terrific payoff.
“I thought Nic Claxton was excellent,” said Atkinson. “Exactly what we saw in preseason. He’s got a knack for the ball. His length at the rim. I thought he was really good.”
It was the first regular season NBA game action for the 20-year-old, selected 31st overall last June.
“When I first got in especially the first couple of minutes it was moving extremely fast but I just had to calm down and stick to my principles,” said Claxton. “I settled down and the outcome was good.”
The 6-foot-11 forward/center entered the game with three minutes remaining in the first quarter and got his first pro points just over two minutes later on a free throw. Early in the second quarter, he netted his first field goal off a pretty spin move down the left edge of the lane.
A few possessions later, he converted a three-point play off an offensive rebound.
“When I got the offensive rebound and I got the putback, I think that really calmed my nerves down,” said Claxton. “One time I pushed somebody down to the ground, just me being physical, I’m here. That was good for me.”
When he got a breather, Claxton found Jordan, the 12th-year veteran, ready with advice and guidance on the sideline. Jordan’s message was for the youngster to take charge of the defense and not be shy about communicating with teammates. And Atkinson was impressed with the way Claxton managed those defensive nuances.
“Understanding his coverages,” said Atkinson. “I think at one time in the first half we were switching everything. He handled that fantastically. That’s part of the reason we drafted him, that he was versatile enough to guard five positions. And the rebounding. He has a knack. The 7-3 wingspan doesn’t hurt.”
Claxton played 12 minutes total, finishing with eight points while making 3-of-5 shots and grabbing six rebounds. The Nets were plus-5 in his time on the floor.
“Wide-eyed rookie. There’s nothing like going out there,” said Kyrie Irving. “I told him I was going to remember this for the rest of my life, when I’m retired, when Nic’s probably in his eighth year, when he’s an incredible player in our league.
“I just told him, he came to the bench one time, he said, ‘it’s really fast out here. It’s really fast.’ I looked at him; I was like, yeah, when I was 20 years old it was just as fast, probably a little bit more fast than that. And that’s the type of environment you want him to experience this early in his career. With DJ going down it’s not good, the injury, but next man up mentality and gets a certain type of confidence for him going into the next game to do the same thing. Be ready to play and be ready to make an impact.”
DINWIDDIE DELIVERS 34 POINTS VS. BLAZERS
The first two weeks of the season had been a little uneven for Spencer Dinwiddie. He had a pair of 20-point games among Brooklyn’s first floor, but went into Friday night’s game at Portland shooting 38.8 percent overall and 24.2 percent from 3-point range.
Then he delivered one of his classic off-the-bench-heat-check games in dropping 34 points on the Blazers in Brooklyn’s 119-115 win.
“I think we’ve had some discussions that he can play better,” said Kenny Atkinson. “Even getting (Dzanan) Musa into that second unit, it gave him a little more space out there. Spencer needs space to operate. We’ve got to push the right lineups around him.”
Dinwiddie got going early, with three 3-pointers in the final 2:34 of the first quarter to power Brooklyn’s 10-2 run to close out the quarter, putting the Nets up 26-20.
“Tonight I really had tough baskets, so there wasn’t a time where I was like, oh man, I’m in the zone, or I’m really killing it or something like that,” said Dinwiddie. “I was just fortunate enough to not be broke from three. I started off the season pretty bad from three and tonight I was able to hit them. Credit Adam Harrington, who’s my position coach, putting in the time with me. Don’t get me wrong, there’s games where you’re hitting tough shots and you’re like OK, I’m rolling. Tonight it was more like Ky found me a couple of times. They had a couple of defensive breakdowns where I got threes in transitions. The open ones is where the score kind of ballooned a little bit.”
Dinwiddie ended up making 6-of-10 3-pointers while shooting 11-for-18 overall.
“When his three ball goes down, it changes,” said Atkinson. “Now you’ve got to get up on him and he goes to the rim. Him making those perimeter shots was huge.”
Dinwiddie was behind another big run early in the third quarter. After the Blazers opened the second half with a 10-2 run that flipped Brooklyn’s five-point halftime led to a three-point deficit, Dinwiddie entered the game a little earlier in the quarter than Brooklyn’s typical rotations and reeled off 15 straight Nets points that lifted Brooklyn into a 71-65 lead. He opened with two drives to the rim before connecting on another 3-pointer.
“That’s just what I was seeing,” said Dinwiddie. “I think the very first one I got in was the one on the left side when they just weren’t there. So I just dribbled into a three and made it. I was fortunate enough to make the basket, that’s a Spencer thing, but the defensive breakdown, that’s not a Spencer thing. I didn’t cross somebody over and make them fall and really get them into my bag or something. They just weren’t there. I took what the defense gave me. I was fortunate enough to make it. It was a good night for that.”
Seven of Brooklyn’s first eight games have been clutch games, defined by the NBA as a game within five points in the final five minutes. That’s tied for first in the league with the team they beat on Friday night, the Portland Trail Blazers.
Last season the Nets were 11th in the league with 44 clutch games, one fewer than four teams tied for seventh with 45. In 2017-18 they were second with 50 clutch games.
ABOUT THE SUNS
The Nets have won their last three in Phoenix. The Suns also won a total of 64 games the last three years. The (very) early returns on 2019-20 have the Suns finally pointed upward a bit, with the infusion of some solid vets around high-scoring young guard Devin Booker, plus the addition of first-year coach Monty Williams, previously the head man in New Orleans for five seasons. They’ve won five of their first eight.
Booker, the 23-year-old, fifth-year guard, is averaging 25.6 points. Booker has scored plenty before — 26.6 per game last year and a career average of 21.5. But he’s demonstrating huge leaps in efficiency, with a field goal percentage of 52.9 that includes 50 percent from 3-point range. Those are against career marks of 44.0 percent and 35.8 percent, respectively. His effective field goal percentage is 60.4, well above last year’s career-best mark of 52.1.
The Suns have been without 2018’s No. 1 pick center DeAndre Ayton, suspended since after the first game for PED use. But Aron Baynes has stepped into the starting lineup at center and is shooting 47.1 percent from 3-point range. Forward Kelly Oubre averages 17.1 points and 5.5 rebounds, while Ricky Rubio has taken the ball-handling and playmaking pressure off Booker and averages 12.4 points, 8.1 assists and 7.1 rebounds. The Suns are second in the NBA with 27.0 assists per game.