By Steve Lichtenstein
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While the Nets have become one of the NBA’s darlings during their month-long housewarming party in their new Brooklyn abode, I could sense that there was still another keg to be tapped.
That would be courtesy of point guard Deron Williams, who re-signed with the Nets over the summer for nearly $100 million over five years but has been forced to play through pain from various ailments. The bone spurs in his left ankle, the sprained right wrist, and the sore elbow have not affected his ability to dish out the easy-bucket hors d’oeuvres to his teammates, with Williams currently in fourth place among the league leaders in assists at 8.8 per game.
However, Williams’ shooting in the early going has been a bummer. Through 16 games, Williams’ percentages from both beneath and beyond the three-point arc were at career lows. And this despite all the help Williams was getting from the upgraded roster talent that was supposed to relieve the strain of having to carry the Nets on his back as he was so often required to do last season.
It was so bad that the Heat didn’t contest Williams’ long-range attempts on Saturday, preferring to slough off to protect against Williams’ drive-and-kicks. This isn’t 2008 Rajon Rondo—Williams, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, had a 57-point outing at Charlotte only nine months ago.
So while I was dismayed by the Nets’ second straight loss, a wild 117-111 affair at home to Oklahoma City last night, I took comfort from the larger picture—Williams’ scoring renaissance.
Williams scorched the Thunder for 33 points, hitting the 50-percent field goal percentage barrier for just the third time this season. He went 5-for-9 from three-point range. His ten free throw attempts were a season high. Oh, and he continued to show why he is one of the best in the NBA at threading the needle, with some gorgeous passes among his 7 assists while committing just two turnovers.
And this wasn’t against some lead-footed defender who couldn’t stay in front of him. No, Williams had to engage fellow Olympian Russell Westbrook, who is highly-regarded as a lockdown artist.
The Westbrook appearance instead seemed to have boosted Williams’ aggressiveness from the opening tip. Williams connected on his first four attempts, including one from over 30 feet, in a 12-point first quarter.
Williams then kick-started the Nets’ comeback from a 16-point third quarter deficit with nine points in a two-minute span. It was followed by Gerald Wallace’s three-point shooting spree. Wallace nailed four wide-open jumpers from long-range to help get the Nets to within 90-86 by the end of the quarter.
Unfortunately, it all went for naught. Williams cooled off a bit in the fourth quarter after taking yet another knock to the injured elbow.
But the primary cause of death was the Nets’ inability to stop the Thunder’s rain of buckets all night. When you look at the statistical disparity, it’s a wonder that the Nets were able to keep it close. Oklahoma City shot a ridiculous 60.6 percent from the floor, 50 percent from three-point land, and went 30-of-34 from the free throw line. Yet the Nets twice were within two points late in the game, only to fail in their attempt to stop Thunder star Kevin Durant when it counted in order to get completely over the hump.
The Nets certainly could have used the inside presence of center Brook Lopez, who sat out his third straight game with a right foot sprain, and reserve forward Reggie Evans, who called in sick with the flu. The seven-foot Lopez, the Nets’ leading scorer at 18.5 ppg, would not have been as intimidated by the shot-blocking abilities of the Thunder big men as much as Andray Blatche and Kris Humphries were. Plus, Lopez has improved his own rim-protection skills that might have turned away a few of the Thunder forays into the paint. And though the Nets punished the Thunder on the glass without Evans, their rebounding machine, they are a much better defensive team with him on the floor.
But this is the NBA, where the better teams ignore injuries to pull out tough games. It’s also a League dominated by its stars. The Nets have gotten a birds-eye view of this in their last two games against the antagonists from the 2012 Finals. First it was LeBron James and Dwyane Wade who took over in the second half to lead Miami on Saturday and last night it was the Thunder duo of Durant and Westbrook who delivered clutch performances.
For the Nets, it doesn’t matter how many millions Nets’ ownership poured into the Barclays Center, its ceiling will be determined by how well Williams, their best player, can subjugate the pain all over his body to consistently make game-deciding plays down the stretch of these games. Lopez, Wallace and Joe Johnson are all quality talents and Nets general manager Billy King did a commendable job to bring in better depth, but this needs to be more of Williams’ team for the Nets to reach the elite level.
Williams has shown he can influence a game without significant scoring. I can appreciate that, but imagine how good the Nets would be if his numbers were a little more like Derrick Rose instead of just Rondo. With better shooting, his scoring average will get closer to 20 ppg from the 15 ppg he compiled in the first 16 games. Hopefully last night was the turning point.
If so, there will be little hangover from this loss.
Look at the bright side, right? Right? Give us your thoughts on Williams and the Nets in the comments below…