Nic Claxton dominates in return from ankle injury as Nets beat Wizards

NEW YORK — It didn’t take long for Nic Claxton to remind the Nets of what they were missing.

Making his return Sunday from an ankle sprain that cost him eight games, the 6-10 center corralled an offensive rebound off a Spencer Dinwiddie miss and turned it into an easy lay-up for Brooklyn’s first two points against the Wizards.

Later in the first quarter, Claxton used a slick spin move to drive past the defending Danilo Gallinari and add another lay-in. In the fourth quarter, the rangy center seemingly came out of nowhere to swat a Landry Shamet attempt — with his momentum taking him up the stairs in the Barclays Center stands.

And with 55.5 seconds remaining and Brooklyn up three, Claxton helped seal the Nets’ 102-94 win with an even more emphatic rejection on a short shot by Kyle Kuzma.

The 24-year-old Claxton finished with 10 points, 13 rebounds — including four offensive boards — and four blocks. His two-way dominance demonstrated how different of a team the Nets are with him in the lineup.

Claxton got hurt in the Nets’ Oct. 25 season opener and later said he was dealing with a high ankle sprain, which typically carries a longer recovery time than a low ankle injury.

Without him, Brooklyn resorted to a smaller starting lineup featuring 6-7 forward Dorian Finney-Smith at center, which allowed opposing big men such as Boston’s Kristaps Porzingis and Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo to feast. The Nets’ size issues were particularly evident during Friday’s loss in Boston, where the Celtics turned 17 offensive rebounds into 29 second-chance points.

Sunday went much differently with Claxton back, with the Nets collecting 20 offensive rebounds. They scored 21 second-chance points compared to Washington’s seven.

By halftime Sunday, Claxton had already pulled down eight rebounds — more than anyone on the Nets finished with Friday. His towering presence loomed large as Brooklyn out-rebounded the Wizards 66 to 42 for the game.

Claxton’s defense was similarly significant, with the switchable center contesting shots within and outside of the paint all afternoon. He helped the Nets keep the Wizards 25 points below their season average of 119, which ranked fifth in the NBA entering Sunday.

The Nets’ offense, however, failed to find much rhythm without leading scorer Cam Thomas (left ankle sprain) or tempo-pushing point guard Ben Simmons (left hip contusion), even against a Washington team that began the day allowing an NBA-worst 126.5 points per game.

Without Simmons to run the fast break, the Nets largely operated out of their work-in-progress half-court offense but couldn’t find their stroke from beyond the arc, finishing just 12-of-49 on three-pointers.

Brooklyn’s offense looked particularly stagnant during a 15-2 Washington run that spanned nearly six minutes in the fourth quarter. The Nets, who led by as many as 17, began the quarter 1-of-10 from three and trailed by five after the Wizards’ run. They survived Washington’s comeback attempt by ending the game on their own 15-2 run, during which Mikal Bridges scored six points over the final 2:26.

Bridges led the Nets with 27 points on 11-of-29 shooting, doing most of his damage with mid-range jumpers. He went just 2-of-14 from three.

The Nets offense has struggled in the half court without Thomas — their top isolation player — and briefly took another hit Sunday with second-unit standout Lonnie Walker suffering a first-quarter knee injury. He returned in the third quarter.

Their transition issues continued Sunday, too, with only 11 fast break points. The Nets haven’t exceeded 14 fast break points in any of the four games Simmons missed but scored at least 20 in each of his six starts.

With the win, the Nets improved to 5-5 and 2-3 at home. The Wizards fell to 2-7. Brooklyn continues its two-game home stand Tuesday against the Magic in what will be the first game of the NBA’s new in-season tournament to take place at Barclays Center.