By Steve Lichtenstein
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All that was missing was the heroic cry, “Here I come to save the day!”
Though not quite a Mighty Mouse, point guard Deron Williams, after a nine-game absence due to a sprained ankle, shed his alter ego suit-and-tie and put on his superhero uniform Tuesday night in an effort to save his Nets from slipping further behind in the Atlantic Division.
More specifically, the one in distress was Williams’ vacation buddy, head coach Jason Kidd, who has been under fire for an amalgam of issues contributing to the Nets’ 7-14 start.
Sergey Kuschenko, a top advisor to Nets owner Mikahil Prokhorov, flew in from Moscow to take in the game. It’s doubtful that this was a pleasure trip. More likely was that Kuschenko was on assignment to check out for himself what the heck has been going on with his boss’ $189-million team.
We’re coming up on the one-year anniversary of the Nets firing coach Avery Johnson for his 14-14 start. Kidd, whose team has been hit hard by the injury bug since the season began, has had to deal with much higher expectations from this under-performing cast.
So I guess Kidd can thank Williams for appearing in the nick of time to quiet the uproar — for at least one more night. D-Will was his old high-stepping self in leading the Nets to a 104-96 victory over first-place Boston at the Barclays Center. Williams scored 25 points, on 10-for-16 shooting from the floor, and passed for seven assists.
Though Kidd intimated before the game that Williams would have his playing time limited in his first game back, that plan went out the window by the third quarter. D-Will ended up playing 37 minutes, his longest run of the season.
The Nets needed it, as they are a completely different team when D-Will isn’t healthy. Shaun Livingston had a pretty good stretch of games earlier in the season filling in for Williams, but opponents have since figured out that he has no confidence in his jump shot outside of 10 feet.
Williams, on the other hand, is a threat to score from anywhere on the court. He only made one-of-five three-point shots last night, but he hit on several from just inside the arc. With his repertoire of moves, Williams was able to maneuver pretty much wherever he wanted.
Williams saved his best work for the third quarter, the notorious frame in which the Nets have so often discombobulated ever since their move across two rivers last year.
Sure enough, the Nets fritted away their nine-point halftime lead in two-plus minutes, but Williams led the response with nine points and four assists before getting subbed for Livingston with the Nets ahead, 83-68, with 2:20 to go in the quarter.
And though Williams mentioned afterwards that he thought then that he would be done for the night, Kidd needed him to close the last 10 minutes of the game. By that point, Williams was probably running on fumes, but he did manage to make a few huge plays down the stretch, including a difficult underhanded scoop from the right lane with just under seven minutes remaining.
Now, D-Will’s return wasn’t all roses. His defense was sporadic. He was late several times closing out on the Celtics’ three-point shooters and Jordan Crawford got past him on a few drives to the rim.
Still, it was better than the Nets’ alternatives.
Livingston, as well as speedier second-year backup Tyshawn Taylor, had been getting abused by opposing point guards. The Nets were just a mess defending pick-and-rolls and owned the league’s worst three-point shooting percentage defense.
That’s why, as I mentioned in posts leading up to the season, the player the Nets could least afford to lose for a substantial period was Williams. For all of Brook Lopez’s beastly inside scoring prowess, or Joe Johnson’s ability in the clutch, or the intangibles brought onto the floor by former Celtics Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, it’s Williams who is most irreplaceable.
And not the Williams who was too deferential at the beginning of the season. Maybe he was dusting off the rust from an inactive preseason caused by a different ankle injury and in the midst of learning a new system with new teammates. Williams was averaging just 9.3 points per game before landing on Kemba Walker’s foot in Charlotte on November 20.
No, the Nets need the D-Will who was once in the conversation when experts discussed the league’s elite point guards. The one for whom the spirited Celtics could not find an answer last night.
Unfortunately, we haven’t had the opportunity to witness that kind of talent on a consistent basis. D-Will’s ankles haven’t been the same since he played in the 2012 Olympics. And, to regurgitate a line, the NBA court is full of figurative land mines in the form of 18 other feet. Even Superman had his Kryptonite.
The Nets have a long way to climb to get out of this hole. Kidd’s strategies can still be baffling. If I was an opposing coach, I’d run constant pick-and-rolls to force Lopez into no-man’s land—even if you miss the guaranteed uncontested shot, every Net is out of position to secure the rebound because they’re covering for Lopez. The Nets continue to look clueless running their end-game offense–they waste too much time before running their sets, which inevitably leads to bad shots and turnovers.
The Nets — and Kidd — need a healthy D-Will to ride to the rescue the rest of the way.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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