This exceedingly unusual time period, headlined by injuries, fleeing star power, and a myriad of eye-popping outfits on the sideline hasn’t been kind to boys from our borough. The James Harden trade’s aftermath subjected the Nets to their first stage of this “retool” or “rebuild” phase we still find ourselves dredging through.
With additional trade requests, coaching changes, and more injuries coming after, it’s like the Nets have had to follow three different blueprints trying to build this thing back up. After inadvertently switching from one scheme to another, were now left with this standing, but rather anesthetically pleasing architectural structure. Think of the Weasley house in the Harry Potter franchise.
Regardless, it held strong vs Philly last night as 76ers simply tried to stay afloat without Joel Embiid or the Crumbl Cookie himself Tobias Harris. As Brooklyn pummeled them for a 136-121 victory, here’s what we learned.
Claxton’s Growth on the Boards
Being the league’s sixth best rebounder from a per game standpoint, Joel Embiid is one of the game’s hungriest glass eaters. But with the reigning MVP unable to come to the table last night, the guys used to picking up his scraps instead got a full serving. No Net benefitted more from that opportunity than Nic Claxton.
Along with his 12 points, four assists, and four blocked shots, Clax finished with 15 boards. He grabbed 13 of them in the first two frames, earning a career-high for a half. His total tally was good for a top-five career mark as well.
Big numbers from Clax in the W— Brooklyn Nets (@BrooklynNets) February 4, 2024
12 PTS | 15 REB | 4 AST | 4 BLK | 100 FG% pic.twitter.com/zh1dwmCh04
It bears mentioning that four of those top-five career rebounding games for Claxton have come in the past month and a half. He pulled down 17 against the New York Knicks roughly two weeks ago as well as 16 vs the Denver Nuggets and Oklahoma City Thunder in late December.
Claxton now averaging 10.5 rebounds per game, a would-be career-high for him. Yet it feels like something we’ve glossed over this year. To be fair, the team’s first struggling and now resurgent defense has made it easy to do so. But if you still haven’t noticed his growth there, let this be your wakeup call.
Return of the Jedi
For the “strangest game log ever” award, Cam Thomas has some company.
While Jacque Vaughn’s granted CT more consistent minutes this year than any other, the scoring outbursts he enjoyed during his first two seasons became synonymous with subsequent DNPs or outings where he played only one or two possessions. That peculiarity is something we’ve seen lately with ... Lonnie Walker IV.
Dazzling off the bench earlier this season, everyone and their mother expected Walker IV to return as a steady member of Brooklyn’s rotation when he returned from injury. He played roughly five minutes in each of his first two games back, hampered by minutes restrictions. Granted, the Nets carry perhaps the league’s most cautious medical team, so you can chalk up to taking things slow and steady.
But although Walker IV looked to be “back” in the Paris game after coming through with 20 points in 25 minutes played, the following game saw him put up a goose egg with only nine minutes of burn. He dropped 13 and 15 during the next two, but then averaged 12.0 minutes and 3.7 points per game for his four contests. Zig. Zag.
But that brings us to where we are now, which seems to be Walker IV’s largest upswing since returning to the fold. On the heels of two 19-point games where he played 27 and then 30 minutes, Walker IV dropped 20 points last night, again playing 30 minutes.
With fast break conductor Ben Simmons by his side and a red-hot Thomas running and gunning as well, Walker IV did especially well in transition both as a scorer and facilitator. He made good reads getting to his spots around screens for jumpers and moving off-ball for catch-and-shoot chances. En route to his best domestic showing since November, the 25-year-old shot 8-16 from the field, 3-8 from deep, and dished three assists.
Whether or not this major surge on his part will be answered with more unusual benchings remains to be seen. But at least for the time being, Skywalker has returned. As Jacque Vaughn said post-game, the Nets are lucky to have him on a vets minimum deal. Indeed.
Cam Thomas Starting No Longer a Question
The toxicity across the Brooklyn Nets fanbase, still wallowing (whether they admit it or not) in the wake of unmet championship expectations, is most identifiable when you bring up Cam Thomas.
On one hand, you have the crowd concentrated on his negatives, such as his deficiencies in the passing department. On the other, you have a faction of fans that focus on Thomas’ positives, such as his God-given ability to score the basketball. A glass with the No. 24 stained onto its front if you will, which fans strictly perceive as either half full or half empty.
At least online, it seems as if everyone just wants to be right about their take on Thomas even more than they want to see the team win. Whenever Thomas hits or misses a shot, it’s like they’re worrying about their argument with whatever keyboard warrior they got into it with last night rather than the scoreboard.
The Nets were forced to make an excess of pivotal franchise decisions on the way to their title-run disaster. Naturally, that set up a basis for division amongst the fans and fostered this adversarial attitude. Cam Thomas is the latest victim of this understandably torn and upset machine that is #NetsTwitter.
Regardless, last night was another win for the pro-Thomas campaigners. Not only did he drop 40 points on an efficient 53.8% from the field, he crossed party lines to tackle the issues his doubters often concern themselves with. Thomas made excellent reads all night, shifting gears like an old school derby racer from a decisive shot maker to a willing passer whenever the defense bore down on him. His chemistry with Nic Claxton in particular grows with every game...
Cam Thomas against Philadelphia:— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) February 4, 2024
- 40 points
- 14/25 FG
- 5 assists
- 5/11 3 PT
What stood out most? Thomas was excellent as a quick decision-maker off-the-ball last night. Created a good look against almost every closeout he saw: pic.twitter.com/EWHcmsIQVm
The LSU product finished with five assists to go with his 40 burger, leaving him just one shy of breaking the a top-four for those in franchise history. Reminder, he’s just 22 years old.
Good read from Cam Thomas here. Sixers switch the first screen, do not on the second. House is showing help, quick decision on the skip pass. Offenses are making the reads to punish any breakdown from defenses. pic.twitter.com/KFOaeNbcIw— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) February 3, 2024
Thomas is averaging 3.4 dimes per game in his last 10. That’s nothing to throw a parade over, but those that watch the games can see his expanding court vision and improved decision making even on sequences where they don’t lead to a bucket.
The defense remains an area to improve, but Brooklyn as a team has had that on lock since going to the switch. They can afford to leave a softer defender out there like Thomas, especially when you consider what he’s giving them at the other end.
For those still viewing Thomas as a bench piece rather than a starting caliber player, I’d ask you to reconsider why you really think that and how much of it has to do much with his game. Flip it the other way too and ask yourself what’s Spencer Dinwiddie done to hold a starting guard spot over him? The mental gymnastics needed to argue why a guy who carries this team on offense night after night — and who’s also showing signs of growth —must be exhausting at this point. No shame in throwing in the towel.