By Steve Lichtenstein
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How D-Bilitated is D-Will?
The word is out around the League that Nets star point guard Deron Williams is not operating at maximum efficiency. At the season’s quarter pole, Williams is shooting a career-low 38.7% from the floor, with a feeble 27.5% success rate from three-point distances.
During the Nets’ recent five-game losing streak, which ended last night with a 94-88 victory at injury-depleted Toronto, it has been strange watching opposing defenders give Williams so much space on the perimeter as if he were Jacque Vaughn.
While Williams’ claim following the heart-breaking loss to the Knicks that he “hasn’t played a good game all season” is a bit of a hyperbole, Brooklyn fans have rarely seen the complete package he has so often delivered in the past.
Shhh. The Nets and Williams don’t want you to know the degree in which injuries have played a role in Williams’ slow start. Williams received a cortisone shot prior to the season to ease the pain from bone spurs in his left ankle, an injury that could require surgery at some point. Then there was the fall during the November 23rd Clippers game that caused a sprain in his right wrist, which had previously been operated on at the end of the 2011 season. That knockdown occurred only a week after Williams banged his right elbow while falling to the floor in a game at Sacramento. It would seem these things might hinder a players’ shooting ability, right?
Of course, everyone keeps downplaying the effects of these mishaps. It’s part of the NBA code not to talk about injuries. If you’re well enough to take the court, there are no excuses. And there better be a good reason why you can’t play.
The attempted secrecy extends to when players are out of action. Though not as bad as the NHL, where players are listed as “day-to-day” with an “upper-body injury” when they get a concussion, look at the entries in the Brook Lopez diary. The Nets’ starting center’s “mild” foot sprain was only supposed to keep him out a few games. Last night’s game was the Nets’ seventh in a row without Lopez. Maybe he’ll play in Friday’s game against Detroit at the Barclays Center. Maybe he won’t.
The Lopez injury only added to the burdens the Nets have placed on their high-priced backcourt of Williams and Joe Johnson. Unfortunately, the duo has been less than dynamic. Johnson has been a mixed bag, though over the last dozen games or so he has cut down on his mail-in games to maybe one-in-three.
With Williams, the Nets are still getting the superior ballhandling and dishing. Williams is tied for fourth in the NBA in assists with 8.5 per game and his assists-to-turnover ratio is fifth among those with more than 120 assists.
And, as Knicks point guard Raymond Felton can attest, Williams can still put the clamps on opposing point guards on certain nights. In the two games versus the Nets, Felton shot a combined 6-for-31.
But even the defense has been sporadic. In three straight games last week, opposing point guards lit up the Nets to the tune of 26.3 ppg.
The Nets really need the healthy Williams to close out tight games against the better teams. Half of the Nets’ 12 wins have come against Orlando, Toronto and Cleveland, who own a combined record of 17-50. I think the Raptors suited up their peanut vendors last night to fill their bench yet it still took a second-half comeback and late free throws for the Nets to escape.
It’s been a different story against the playoff-caliber opponents. The Nets have melted down in the fourth quarter in losses to the Lakers, Heat, Warriors (twice) and Knicks. Though it’s certainly not entirely Williams’ fault, the Nets aren’t paying him that nearly $100 million contract for him to act as a bystander in the crucial moments. The ball is often in Williams’ hands, and it’s up to him to make the plays that create scoring opportunities for either himself or his teammates. According to 82games.com, Williams is shooting a horrific 10% in “clutch” situations (less than five minutes left in fourth quarter or overtime, with point spread within five points).
If it’s the injuries that are preventing Williams from succeeding, then the Nets must examine this situation now before it’s too late. Better to give Williams a day or two off in December than to have him playing at substantially less than 100% for the entire season and playoffs.
Backup point guard C.J. Watson may not be in Williams’ stratosphere, but he has the experience from filling in for injured Bulls’ star Derrick Rose last season. Watson was a difference-maker last night with his 16 points off the bench, thanks to a perfect 4-for-4 from three-point land.
Let Watson take the reins for this weekend’s back-to-back slate. Detroit is another dreadful opponent that should be handled with ease at home, especially if Lopez is available. And Watson will be juiced to go back to Chicago, who let him walk away in favor of Kirk Heinrich and Nate Robinson, on Saturday. Neither of those games is on national TV, so no one in the League office will investigate a Williams-less Nets’ lineup.
The Nets at full strength are a legitimate playoff threat. Hopefully they are not short-sighted and make sure their best player gets to that point.
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