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Late promise: Nic Claxton looks good as preseason ends

Minnesota Timberwolves v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

It’s long been assumed — at least among fans — that Blake Griffin would start at the 5 when the Nets open up Tuesday night vs. Milwaukee. The bigger issue is who will start in place of Kyrie Irving, assuming he doesn’t get at least one COVID-19 vaccine before then ... and that seems unlikely.

But Steve Nash hasn’t said what he’ll do when asked for the line-up cards before game 1. Griffin was rested Thursday night and Nicolas Claxton started and stepped up. The numbers were almost as impressive as the eye test which was quite impressive, thank you very much.

The 22-year-old finished with 11 points and seven rebounds while giving Nash solid defense By game’s end, he had a plus-26 rating in 24 minutes against the Timberwolves.

Post-game, the 6’11 (and 3/4)” big man expressed his confidence that the best is yet to come.

“I see a big opportunity, and I’m definitely ready,” Claxton said. “I feel a lot stronger out there, especially on the defensive end just being able to hold my ground…I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable with being able to guard guards. I take a lot of pride in that and feel like I’m one of the best defenders in the league.”

Claxton’s athleticism and agility have made him an ideal defender in the Nets’ switch-heavy schemes on D. He could use some more strength. When he and Kevin Durant are out there together, as they were Friday, the Nets are Thin Towers up front. KD liked what he saw from his teammate.

“He was phenomenal getting to the rim, guarding guys on the perimeter, blocking shots at the rim. We’re going to need that from him every night, and we expect that out of him,” said Durant post-game.“ Yeah, we are going to need him to play with that energy,”

So did Steve Nash, noting that he had pointed to Clax’s strengths earlier in preseason.

“Yeah, I’ve said before Nic gives us a unique profile – long, agile, athletic defender and a rim-roller,” Nash said. “We saw the energy. He was a little more active, a little more impact he has on the game.

“As his conditioning improves, so can his role on this team. It was great to see him respond to the opportunity of the minutes and keep pushing and put himself in a position to…keep taking steps toward a larger role.”

The T-Wolves game was a bit of preseason redemption for Claxton. He had a bad game vs. the Lakers, then missed two games to illness. There had even been some suggestions that the Nets could be whispering his name in trade talks. Claxton is on the last year of a three-year deal that pays him $1.8 million this season.

Griffin thinks he’ll work out just fine.

“He’s great at what he does,” Griffin said of Claxton. “I know I can help him a little bit, and he helps me a little bit. The things we don’t bring, I think the other one has, so I really enjoyed playing with Nic.

“So playing the 4 or the 5, it doesn’t really matter to me.”

Brooklyn will have its hands full Tuesday with Giannis Antetokounmpo, Brook Lopez and Bobby Portis, so the Nets deep bench of bigs will all likely see some action. How much of that will come from Claxton?

“My goal this year is to take my conditioning to a whole other level,” he said post-game. “That’s a big part of my growth. It’s something I really got to push myself just to get to that level to play as many minutes as I need to.”