By Steve Lichtenstein
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Avery Johnson can exhale now.
And the embattled Brooklyn coach can thank his lucky stars for whatever caused the temporary reprieve from the spell that has haunted Deron Williams, his star point guard, virtually all season.
The Nets’ 95-92 victory over Philadelphia yesterday at the Barclays Center had all the makings of one of those mainstream horror flicks, with the fans on the edge of their seats until the final moments before they could be assured that this one had a happy ending.
It was the banged-up and struggling Williams who emerged as the hero, with nine points in the final five minutes to put away the pesky 76ers.
Williams may be the man on the marquee, but his fourth quarter troubles have been a focal point of the Nets’ recent dive in the standings. While still a premier facilitator, Williams’ ankle, wrist and elbow injuries have hindered his perimeter shooting, resulting in career-worst percentage numbers from the floor. It’s pretty obvious that the Nets’ season will have a limited run if Williams doesn’t become more of a factor in end-game executions.
To add to the suspense, Williams waited until there was 1:04 remaining in the game to hit his first shot from outside the paint, a three-pointer that gave the Nets an 89-82 lead, and then on the next possession he drove for another bucket.
Of course, the Nets failed to check their foe’s pulse, a mistake common in the genre, for Philadelphia was not dead. A couple of three-pointers, some missed free throws by Williams and fellow guard Joe Johnson, and an easy score by 76ers guard Evan Turner cut the margin to two points with three seconds left.
Fortunately, the villains self-destructed because they burned their last time out prior to the Turner hoop and could not take advantage of one last opportunity when Johnson bricked his second free throw with two seconds left. Turner could do nothing with the rebound but heave the ball down court as time and the 76ers finally expired.
Hopefully this win breathes some life into the Nets, who snapped a three-game losing streak that had them on the brink of falling out of the top eight in the Eastern Conference for the first time this season. An 11-4 dream start in their new city turned into a nightmare once they turned the page on their calendar. The Nets had gone a wretched 2-8 in December and coach Johnson was starting to feel some pressure for his team’s and Williams’ subpar performances.
With three days off to address the Nets’ latest swoon, Johnson pored through some old playbooks in search of some magic potions to fix his club’s sorry offense, in particular their second-half blues.
He came up with a curious move, stapling his $12 million power forward, Kris Humphries, to the bench. Instead, Johnson went small, starting Keith Bogans and moving Gerald Wallace to the power forward slot.
When Philadelphia raced out to a 12-4 lead in the first six minutes, I was as mad as those theater-goers who holler at the screen when a couple finds out their house is haunted but decides to stay anyway.
Don’t go back there! Haven’t we seen this before? I’ve been ranting all year that the Nets have been better when playing big, imposing their will with their interior presence and strong rebounding on both ends. This roster is not deep with three-point sharpshooters. Every time they try to match up with opponents who spread the floor and bomb away, they get beat. Why not make the other guys match the Nets’ strengths for a change?
But then the plot took a twist.
It was the Nets who morphed into a terror during an ensuing 18-0 run. Bogans, who I have called an offensive dead end in the past, was a beast, by far his best game of the season. Bogans scored 13 points on 5-for-6 shooting, including 3-for-4 from three-point range, in addition to playing solid defense.
Though the Nets never relinquished the lead, there were still plenty of anxious moments. Philadelphia forward Thaddeus Young, the Nets’ underlying motive for going small, began to heat up with a 12-point third quarter.
Joe Johnson had a monster third quarter, closing it in style with back-to-back shots from well beyond the three-point line. The Nets’ bench also helped them keep pace in the second half, with Andray Blatche, Jerry Stackhouse and C.J. Watson contributing big baskets before Bogans and Williams finished the 76ers off.
The win upped the Nets’ mark to 9-6 at the Barclays Center, with Boston visiting for a nationally televised game on Christmas Day.
The schedule is only going to get more daunting as the New Year approaches. We’ll know soon if the Nets are back to playing consistent basketball or if this show was just a One-Night-Only engagement.
Is the pressure off Avery? Let us know…