As we transition towards the second half of the season, the NBA playoff picture is starting to take shape. The East’s shape is gnarly, with just one loss separating the 4 and 12 seeds. So, after talking about the Brooklyn Nets, and what they showed without Kevin Durant last week, there’ll be some early intel on a potential playoff opponent, one of the most fun watches in the league: the Charlotte Hornets. So stick around if you’re interested in that; there’s a lot of Brooklyn Nets ground to cover in the meantime.

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At Long Last, Nic Claxton

The wait is over. We’d been waiting on pins and needles for the season debut of the 2020 second-rounder like he was a COVID vaccine. A shoulder injury that kept Claxton out of The Bubble meant that he hadn’t played in nearly a year. Yet, despite all that pressure, he didn’t disappoint. Claxton showed no signs of rust, apart from the occasional wind-sucking between plays. I chronicled his season debut vs. the Sacramento Kings here, but he logged at least 12 minutes in the three games he was available for.

The takeaway is his defensive acumen, which is scary right now at just 21 years old. Claxton in no way moves like the near 7-footer he is; at just 215 pounds, he’sn right out of the Kevin Durant School of Thin Men. Brooklyn dabbled in various defensive schemes with him on the court, mostly sticking with an-all switching lineup, where Claxton really looks tantalizing. He slides his feet on the perimeter and never relaxes out of his stance, even roaming in help. It’s guard-like. After checking in vs. Sacramento, he immediately spent possessions guarding Buddy Hield and De’Aaron Fox in space, and got stops on both. And days later, facing the Dallas Mavericks, Clax spent a possession hounding Luka Doncic, keeping up with multiple head-fakes, hesitations, and crossovers.

Claxton’s nightmarish 7’3″ wingspan affords him some breathing room, defensively. He doesn’t have to stick like glue to contest shots, he just needs to be in the vicinity. Yet, that’s what makes him so impressive guarding in space. His feet are lightning quick, and he isn’t leaving them to bite on pump fakes. This possession ends with a (suspect) foul call, but look at how quickly Claxton flips his hips to keep up with Terrence Ross:

During a season with championship expectations, Claxton brings such joy to the roster. He’s the type of prospect you’d expect to see in Oklahoma City, not sharing the floor with All-NBA talent. It speaks to the uneven roster the Nets currently have, with HOFers and veterans mixed with players the casual NBA fan probably hasn’t heard of.

We won’t get to see Claxton run wild this year. There’s been limited ball-handling opportunities and zero three-point attempts, two skills which he flashed last season, mostly in the G-League. And it wasn’t all peaches and cream in Claxton’s first week of the season. He didn’t set many, if any, good screens, and there was certainly a missed rotation here and a sloppy close-out there. And big-bodied centers like Nikola Vucevic are simply overpowering mismatches at this point in time. But Claxton will deserve every minute he gets for the rest of the season. His energy off the bench should spark the Brooklyn Nets at times in the second half of the season, although he doesn’t figure to factor in the playoff rotation much. But it was great to see Nic Claxton suit up this past week; there’s excitement every time he steps on the court.

Bruce Brown‘s Jumpshot

Is going to be crucial. During his 29-point explosion vs. the Kings, he hit bombs from the corner. Those two makes could prove huge in the long-run for the Brooklyn Nets. If defenses have to at least ponder Bruce Brown taking three-pointers, it unlocks a whole bunch of lineup combinations for Steve Nash come playoff time. It doesn’t look super likely, based on the 21.4% for Brown on low volume from deep this season. But his two makes last Tuesday were cause for inspiration.

Steve Nash and Mike D’Antoni are intent on maximizing the spacing around Brooklyn’s stars. It’s why Nash has almost exclusively closed games with Jeff Green at the 5, barring a couple unfavorable matchups. DeAndre Jordan, of course, has considerable value as a roll-man and play-finisher. Even Brown has excelled in his role as a de-facto center at times. But playing two non-shooters at once is less than ideal for the Nets. It’s why it’s hard to imagine Andre Roberson or Iman Shumpert playing meaningful minutes come playoff time.

Playing Brown alongside Jordan hasn’t caused issue for the Nets over this recent stretch, mainly because James Harden is an offensive cure-all. Yet, there’s clutter in the lane with Brown playing next to Jordan (or Roberson for that matter). Brown will make a great cut, but Jordan’s man is there to contest his shot. Lineups with Brown and Jordan suffer a bit offensively when Kyrie Irving is running the show and not Harden. It’s minor, but something to monitor as the playoffs creep closer.

Bruce Brown’s Passing

Looks good! Better, at least. His role as a center-type on offense meant a complete adjustment from the basketball Brown had been playing for most of his life, I assume. The angles, the reads, all of it. It’s been visible at times where Brown has to make a pass off a cut or a roll. Here, he makes the right read, but the delivery and timeliness aren’t there:

Overall, though, Brown had a good week passing the ball off of his dives to the rim. The reads are becoming more familiar to him; Brown is beginning to see the next pass before the ball hits his hands. He posted back-to-back games with three assists for the first time all season to end the week. If Brown can swing the ball effectively in his hybrid role, it gives defenses more pause before deciding to trap Harden on the perimeter.

The Brooklyn Nets Defending the Pick and Pop

The Brooklyn Nets faced two of their toughest matchups of the season back-to-back in the Dallas Mavericks and Orlando Magic, with Kristaps Porzingis and Nikola Vucevic being two of the most lethal threats from behind the arc among NBA centers. In other words, they are extreme drop-busters, complicated the 25 minutes a night DeAndre Jordan regularly handles. Dealing with Porzingis was a little easier for Brooklyn, as he’s not going to punish switches in the post like Vucevic would. Yet, the two games each provided insight into how Brooklyn would make adjustments to account for their shooting.

It was vs. the Magic that we gleaned the most insight into how Nash may respond to a pick and pop offense down the road. Jordan only logged 13 minutes vs. Dallas, where the Nets embraced a switching defense. And yes, the Brooklyn Nets certainly switched a ton of actions vs. the Magic to prevent the pop, but that allowed Vucevic room to operate in the post. How would the Nets counter the counter?

Well, Steve Nash and assistant Ime Udoka brought out an inventive defense that involved James Harden playing free safety. Harden would man the lane, and switch onto Vucevic in the post, bailing his teammates out of uncomfortable situations:

The Magic didn’t really have a counter, based on the lack of shooting their depleted roster has. And, if this defense is utilized more in the playoffs, the Brooklyn Nets will have some work to do in ironing out the kinks. But the Magic presented a valuable showcase for James Harden’s defensive skillset, and perhaps it’ll be a game to look back on.

It’s too bad the short-handed Brooklyn Nets couldn’t extend the winning streak to nine vs. Dallas on national TV. But all in all, it was a fun, feel-good week for the boys in black and white. With just two games before the All-Star break, it’d be hard to feel much more optimistic.

The Charlotte Hornets

Had a decent week, splitting four games as a part of a West Coast road trip. The last of which was particularly impressive, a win in Sacramento without both Gordon Hayward and Cody Zeller, who are probably their two best players. No disrespect to LaMelo Ball or Terry Rozier, it’s more that Zeller may be one of the most underrated players in the NBA. Offensively, he sets timely screens, and has underrated ball skills that allow him to get the offense moving from side to side. Zeller can dribble into handoffs, hit cutters, or even seal the occasional mismatch.

Meanwhile, Charlotte plays one of the more aggressive defenses out there; it’s reminiscent of last year’s Chicago Bulls. The constant switching, trapping, and bodies flying around the court aim to produce turnovers to jumpstart an offense built to attack in transition. Zeller is the anchor of said defense, which falls from average to poor without him on the court. He has the foot-speed to play a variety of coverages, but most importantly, he’s Charlotte’s best communicator on the court, helping to direct his teammates to where they need to be.

Even with Zeller on the court, though, the Hornets’ defense isn’t where it needs to be to win a playoff series (although they could give a top-seed some trouble in the first round). Their starting backcourt of Rozier and Ball is patchy. Neither have the off-ball awareness or communication skills to consistently make proper rotations and close-outs. Opponents can exploit them with the type of action Utah runs here:

Offensively, though, the backcourt makes more sense as Ball continues to grow. Terry Rozier isn’t able to twist the defense with his passing ability; per Synergy, the Hornets average a putrid 0.846 points/possession when they get a shot after a Rozier pick and roll, despite his ability to make shots off the dribble. Defenses are able to trap Rozier without the threat of a skip pass winning the possession. With Ball assuming more of the half-court handling duties, and doing a damn good job, coach James Borrego is free to use Rozier as a true off-guard. Rozier is on fire from three this year, and is eliminating his defender from help responsibilities.

The youngest Ball is improving as a finisher, and his respectable 36% clip on pull-up threes means there’s no easy way to guard him around screens. He toasted Nemanja Bjelica off switches for a couple of crucial lay-ups towards the end of Sunday’s win in Sacramento. Ball’s 6’6″ frame means he can simply take two long steps and rise up to finish with his right hand, although he sometimes gets caught in the air after takeoff. But these shots aren’t as difficult as they may seem for him:

Going left, Ball actually seems to have a bit more in his bag. He’ll take a hop-step and jump off two feet, or, obviously find an open teammate.

Elsewhere, PJ Washington continues to expand upon an impressive rookie season, posting 42 points in the win over Sacramento. His three-point shooting, which has ballooned to 38%, is major for both his growth and the potential of this Hornets team. He’s not a deadly pick and pop threat alongside Zeller – the lane can get crowded at times – but he’s solid. Washington will often float to the top of the key in the roll/rise actions Charlotte loves to run, where he can pass, shoot, or attack close-outs off the catch, When his three-point shooting is on, though, as it was vs. the Kings, it bares obvious fruits. On the game’s final play, he drew Richaun Holmes out of the paint just long enough to create a lane for Malik Monk:

At the same time, he’s not quite ready to play as a small-ball 5 either. He’s neither a strong enough interior defensive presence nor communicator to handle that burden. Washington at the 5 is intriguing on offense, though, and Borrego leaned on it down the stretch in Sacramento. We’ll see if that continues with Zeller back in the lineup.

Gordon Hayward makes a ton of sense on this roster; it’s easy to see why he’s having a successful season. He thrives in the mid-range area. It’s an area often left open by defenses facing the Hornets, as opponents scramble to take away guys like Zeller, or Miles Bridges diving to the rim, and capable shooters like Rozier or Washington rising to the top of the key. He and Ball are lethal in transition, two plus-passers who are often a step or two ahead of their opponents.

The recent story of the Charlotte Hornets, though, is the re-emergence of Malik Monk. The talent has always been there, Monk is just actually getting playing time now. A putrid 0-7 from deep on Sunday brought him all the way down to…44% from deep. He’s been on fire. Monk has defenses scrambling when he enters the game; he and Rozier boosted the Hornets to third in team three-point percentage across the month of February. LaMelo, along with Hayward, is the engine to Charlotte’s offense, but Monk is a valuable rotation piece around the edges right now. Not only does his presence space the floor, but an otherworldly first-step allows him to beat even the slightest mistake on a close-out.

Monk will have to start finishing plays more consistently, though. He’s only a 24th percentile finisher at the rim this year, per Cleaning the Glass. And he’ll have to learn to balance his shot with playmaking opportunities for others. Monk is no stranger to hoisting a good look from three instead of making the next pass for a great one. But Monk can play, and he’s of much better use to Charlotte on the court than on the bench.

Charlotte is 2021’s ultimate League Pass team. Eric Collins is the most enthusiastic play-by-play announcer on TV. He’s the perfect match for the free-wheeling LaMelo Ball, who’s the perfect match for the high-flying Miles Bridges. For the first time in a while, the Hornets roster just makes sense. But you don’t figure their three-point shooting is going to continue to stay at 40%. Rozier and Monk will surely come back down to Earth, somewhat, in the second half of the year. If Charlotte wants to make the playoffs, much less win a series, they’ll have to start playing more disciplined defense. But that question, and its eventual answer, is definitely worth watching in the meantime.

Looking Ahead For The Brooklyn Nets

The Brooklyn Nets finish up the first half of their regular season with two games in Texas this week. San Antonio has long been a house of horrors for Brooklyn, and, while Houston hasn’t, the Rockets may be fired up to play a certain somebody. I’ll also be writing about the Washington Wizards next week, who have thrown themselves squarely in the East’s playoff muck.