By Steve Lichtenstein
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With the real deal still a week away, the Nets and Heat will have generated more headlines with their locker-room material in the prelude to Friday night’s exhibition finale than from anything that will occur on the court.
The banter between the two clubs has been comical, with Miami’s two-time defending champion LeBron James not ready to give the reloaded Nets equivalent status and calling out Brooklyn’s Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce for bailing on Boston — by getting traded — after the duo previously demonized teammate Ray Allen (who signed with Miami as a free agent last year).
Friday night’s game promises to be merely a distraction, as James has indicated he plans to sit this one out, much to the dismay of the bean counters at NBA TV.
As for the Nets, star point guard Deron Williams will once again be scra…
Wait a minute.
Was that really D-Will participating in a 5-on-5 scrimmage at the Nets’ practice facility on Tuesday? And then coming back to a full practice on Thursday (and even throwing down a dunk near the end)?
Was he really thinking about (gasp) playing on Friday?
Thanks to a sprained right ankle and bone bruise, Williams has yet to play a minute this preseason. Williams’ sole responsibility on game days thus far has been executing three pushups following every Brooklyn three-point field goal.
Williams’ ankles have had their own saga since the point guard injured them at the 2012 Summer Olympics. Williams, who signed an approximately $100 million long-term contract a year ago, was less than Olympian at the start of last season. His shooting percentages were headed for career lows until Injections in both ankles at the All-Star break helped Williams regain the form that made him one of the game’s elite point guards.
With the Nets’ bar set even higher coming into this season after another summer of stocking talent, Williams vowed to take on a leadership role. He worked out feverishly, organizing a “Nets West” team-bonding experience in California in August before resuming his individual regimen to prepare for training camp at Duke University.
It was in one of those sessions in Utah that Williams incurred the latest injury.
Remember back in September when the Nets all but guaranteed that Williams would be ready for the start of camp? After camp the Nets held out hope he could play in the first preseason game. Then D-Will acknowledged he would miss just the first two exhibitions. The bad-news cycle continued until only a few days ago, when it was, “Well, it’s no big deal if he has to miss a regular-season game or two.”
When it comes to Williams’ ankles, everything is a big deal. A mild sprain doesn’t normally sideline a professional athlete for two months. With all those half-truths bandied about the last year-and-a-half, forgive me for expressing some doubt about Williams being all better now.
When you take last year’s woes into consideration, it becomes easy to speculate the worst about the ankle’s structural capacity for NBA poundings. A basketball court is loaded with mobile land mines in the form of 18 other feet, some of which often get put in harm’s way for anyone driving to the hoop. One awkward landing, one slip or one unlucky entanglement could easily put Williams back at square one.
I understand why Williams feels some urgency to “get a few minutes in” on Friday. He may be succumbing to the pressure that comes with being unable to perform. He has had to endure a daily bombardment of questions from the media related to his health as well as how he can possibly form the appropriate chemistry with all his new teammates without the requisite practice time.
It puts the Nets in a difficult spot. While backup Shaun Livingston has performed admirably this preseason, it is unfair to expect him to produce like D-Will given his unsteady perimeter jump shooting. The Nets’ engine operates at a significantly higher RPM when Williams is running the show.
Now also factor in a schedule that features 11 of the Nets’ first 17 games on the road and those lofty expectations, and it’s easy to see why this situation has taken a sudden turn.
The concern here is that no one wants a repeat of the first 50 games of last season, when Williams had no lift on his jump shot or explosion to the basket. The Nets kept throwing him out there with only winks on the side that he was not 100 percent.
I’m begging the Nets to make sure this issue is fixed this time before putting Williams out on the floor. And a little honesty wouldn’t hurt, either.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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