Nets: The Brooklyn Nets have endured 11 games without Kyrie Irving and Ben Simmons and suffered four consecutive losses without Kevin Durant.
However, they are 29-17 and one game back of second-placed Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference standings.
When the Nets announced Durant’s sprained MCL on January 9, they had the second-best record in the NBA.
They were within a game to leaders Boston Celtics due to 18 wins in 20 games thanks to their offense and solid defense.
If the Nets were at full strength, they would easily become championship contenders.
However, they aren’t in their position because of Durant.
Instead, their milestone can be attributed to a plan that has unraveled.
In May 2022, the Nets lost four close games to the Celtics in the first round of the playoffs.
Team president Sean Marks said they had to fill their roster with size, versatility, and IQ.
He highlighted that the team needed players who had something to prove.
At the time, the Brooklyn Nets didn’t have enough to their arsenal, and Kevin Durant requested a trade prior to his free agency.
However, halfway through the regular season already shows their summer haul was a series of steals.
Their 23-year-old re-signing made incredible progress.
The glue guy that made them lose out a late first-round pick is finding his rhythm.
The Net’s versatile forward they scooped up is now the NBA’s most accurate three-point shooter.
The gunslinger is finding his form from before his previous surgeries.
Nic Claxton is hitting the strides many expected last year with improved strength as the Net’s anchor.
As a result, he is a candidate for the All-Defensive team.
Claxton has been fouling less and contesting shots, shutting down threats more frequently.
“The more reps that I’ve gotten in the NBA, just guarding guys, picking up on tendencies, knowing where I need to be,” said Claxton of his refinement.
“It’s really taken my game to a different level on the defensive end.”
“I’m more confident,” he continued. “I’m not worried so much about just messing out there, so I’m just able to try more things and be more creative.”
“And I just have a better feel for the game, just with the experience that I’ve gotten.”
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Royce O’Neale was a desperate signing for the Nets as they sought a shooter who could defend wings.
He was lauded as a reliable 3-and-D guy.
However, they were surprised that he regularly put the ball on the floor, attacked close-outs, and excelled in pick-and-rolls and dribble-handoffs.
“It felt good,” said O’Neale. “I mean, I’ve always kind of been able to play with the ball more.”
“Just reading different situations, and then becoming more comfortable with it, confident.”
When joining the team, he initially set out to do whatever the Nets needed, which was ball handling.
Nic Claxton had nothing but praises for his teammate.
“He just comes in every day, just works, plays his role, doesn’t have a huge ego,” said Claxton.
“He just wants to come out and play basketball at a high level and win basketball games.”
“It’s always good to have glue guys like that on the roster who can bring that every single night. And he plays extremely hard defensively, can knock down shots.”
While O’Neale is a guy every team could use, he believes he can fill any role in any environment.
“As long as I get to play basketball, I’m cool.”
Yuta Watanabe was an unexpected signing.
He was previously with the Toronto Raptors, but felt he didn’t belong, putting pressure on himself whenever he struck poor performances.
During preseason with the Raptors, he got a leg injury, and while he showed improvements, Watanabe suffered from playing time.
However, things turned around in Brooklyn.
“At this point, it’s a mental game. No matter how bad or how good I shoot before the game or in practice or whatever, I’m always in the present,” he said.
“I always focus on the shot right in front of me. I think that’s the biggest difference between in Toronto and here.”
“Having an experience like that in Toronto is really helping me right now.”
Since joining the Nets, Yuta Watanabe has shot a total of 41 from 84 from the distance, giving him a shot percentage of 59.2% from wide-open 3s.
“I was kind of surprised how much I’ve changed. Nothing really changed, but like how I’m shooting now. This didn’t happen overnight or like over a day,” said Watanabe.
“This is a process of going to the gym every day, getting shots up every day, and it’s a process of years.”
During the December game in Toronto, he scored 17 points in 21 minutes, giving him an all-time high in confidence.
“Every time I catch the ball, I feel like my shots are going in.”
TJ Warren endured a nightmare following his 2020.
Multiple surgeries and stress fractures were factors in him signing a year-long, vet-minimum contract with the Nets.
However, when he joined the Nets, Warren has become an impactful sub, making the same shots he was renowned for before his injuries.
Although he hasn’t hit the same form from the past, TJ Warren has proven to be a valuable asset on the offensive.
“He’s going to be a big help for us,” said O’Neale. “As he already is.”
“I think just him being confident on both ends, knowing what he’s capable of doing, it’s going to help us in the long run.”
“Our depth that we got, he’s a big part of it.”