By Steve Lichtenstein
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In 2011, the New Jersey Nets needed a superstar to carry the franchise in contemplation of their upcoming move to Brooklyn.
After several failed attempts to secure high-profile players, the Nets settled on Deron Williams. They sent the equivalent of three first-round draft choices and Devin Harris to Utah in exchange for the All Star point guard. The following year, the Nets re-signed Williams to a $98 million max contract when he hit free agency.
The idea was that D-Will would serve as the foundation for which the Nets could build around. He would not only be relied upon for statistical production, but he would be the team leader. The Nets were willing to bet anything so long as Williams had the ball in his hands when big games were on the line.
Fast forward to Wednesday night. The Nets, having battled back (thank you, Joe Johnson) from a 26-point third-quarter abyss in the pivotal fifth game of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal at Toronto, had possession of the ball trailing by just two points with the clock ticking down to three minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.
Williams was being closely guarded by Raptors pest Greivis Vasquez in the backcourt. Instead of working to free himself to go get the ball—you know, like all the other elite point guards do—Williams directed Alan Anderson to bring it upcourt.
Now Anderson isn’t a terrible ballhandler, but he’s no D-Will. Plus, Anderson was getting hounded by Toronto’s Kyle Lowry, a known flopper who every game gets the benefit of a dubious number of charging calls his way.
Sure enough, as soon as Anderson spun at the elbow, Lowry leapt into a backward somersault as if he was hit by a tractor-trailer. Raptors ball.
The point isn’t that this was the deciding factor in the Nets’ 115-113 loss that sent them to the brink of elimination in this best-of-seven series. However, if ever there was a play that epitomized Williams’ tenure as a Net, that was it.
The general lack of aggression. The poor decision-making. The failure to produce in the clutch.
Not exactly what the Nets bargained for, huh?
There were times in the past when it was easy to forgive Williams’ transgressions since he was almost always playing on painful ankles. He hasn’t really been the same since the 2012 Olympics, when some suggested that Williams’ excessive weight at that time was the proximate cause for the chronic injuries. In the past two seasons, Williams has had to undergo platelet-rich plasma injections in his ankles just to play past the All Star break.
Williams appeared to tweak his ankle early on Wednesday night, but he looked fairly spry in the fourth quarter—even throwing down a rare dunk on a breakaway two minutes into the period.
He certainly appeared to be in no worse shape than Lowry, who has been playing through a bruised kneecap and assorted other ailments all series.
The main reason why the Raptors now hold a 3-2 edge in this series: D-Will has been badly outplayed by Lowry in the last two games.
Lowry went off for 36 points on Wednesday, shooting 11-for-19 from the floor (including 6-for-9 from three-point territory). He has turned the ball over just once in each of the past two games after totaling 11 turnovers in Games 1 through 3.
On the other hand, it took three quarters for D-Will to even realize he was in a pretty important game. Through three quarters, Williams’ stat line showed three points on 1-for-4 shooting with four assists and three turnovers. No wonder the Nets trailed, 91-69, heading into the fourth quarter.
D-Will did wake up in time to post 10 points and five assists in the final frame, but he could not keep Lowry from imposing his will during crunch time. Lowry’s three-pointer with 1:04 to go gave Toronto the lead for good and then his (figurative) ankle-breaking drive that sent D-Will to the floor restored the Raptors’ three-point lead with 27 seconds left.
I still can’t describe what happened after that, as the Nets frantically came oh-so-close to pulling off a miracle. Just know that D-Will’s sole involvement was chasing down Andray Blatche’s errant pass into the backcourt in the final seconds and heaving a Hail Mary shot that would have counted as the game-winner had Lowry deflected the pass first because Toronto center Jonas Valanciunas lost his mind and decided to goaltend Williams’ shot away. Unfortunately, the replay showed that Lowry didn’t get any piece of the pass, which resulted in a Brooklyn backcourt violation.
So now the Nets head back to Brooklyn for Friday’s do-or-die Game 6. I don’t buy into the spin coming out of Nets-ville that this near comeback will have a similar carryover effect the way the Raptors seemingly used their late run in Game 3 as a springboard for the next two games.
The truth is that the only way the Nets have any chance to survive and advance out of the first round for the first time since 2007 is for D-Will to at least match Lowry’s impact.
He pretty much did it in the first three games, before Toronto coach Dwane Casey switched and made swingman Terrence Ross D-Will’s primary defender. Meanwhile Nets coach Jason Kidd really has no choice but to keep having Williams chase Lowry around the court when Toronto has the ball.
That shouldn’t matter. In these games, the Nets still need Williams to be the straw that stirs the drink, to quote a more famous postseason star in the Big Apple.
When he gets going, Williams has the ability to score from any point on the court as well as find teammates for open looks. They aren’t divergent skills, though too often Williams plays as if that’s the case.
It’s not just about D-Will needing to be more aggressive—sometimes that aggression leads to turnovers or passing up uncontested shots in favor of more difficult attempts. You can sense when Williams thinks he has to play at warp speed and then spins his wheels. If you watch the top point guards like Chris Paul, Tony Parker or—yes—Lowry, they are deadly even when they appear calm.
Williams, does, however, need to take ownership of these games. Especially the biggest games.
When you listen to Williams, there’s always some excuse whenever he plays below his standards. His ankles. The coach. The lighting at the Barclays Center. (Remember that one?)
Several media members have reported that future Hall of Famers Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce have been on D-Will’s case at various points this season to make him more aware of his leadership responsibilities. Their quotes insinuated that Williams’ problems are all in his head.
Not even the hiring of vacation buddy Kidd, one of the greatest point guards of all time, to mentor Williams as to how to play the position at the highest level has halted D-Will’s devolution as a Net.
Nets fans expected Williams to have a breakout year. Instead, one more performance like Wednesday’s and the curtain will close for good on the season.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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