by Jordan Garretson, April 09, 2012
Deron Williams can only imagine how things could have been for the New Jersey Nets this season.
D-Will posted back-to-back double doubles over the weekend as the Nets strung together two more home victories, defeating the Washington Wizards on Friday and the Cleveland Cavaliers on Sunday. The two victories brought their season win total to 21 games with eight left to play this season.
But for a team that has been so ravaged by injuries — the biggest one to star center Brook Lopez who played just five games all year — wins in six of their last nine games have left the Nets wondering "What if?" Deron believes that if the Nets had been healthy this season, that alone would have bridged the nine-game gap that currently sits between the team and a playoff spot.
"It would be a playoff team," he told The New York Post after Friday's win over the Wizards. "I think so. I definitely think so."
But rather than dwell, No. 8 can only focus on the present and the 17 days between today and the end of the season. He continues to serve as the most consistent force in the team's surge and the Nets are doing all they can to finish off the team's final season in New Jersey on a high note.
D-WILL RETURNS, LEADS ROUT
The Nets' weekend started off with a bit of good news when, just hours before Friday's game, Deron declared himself ready to go despite stomach flu symptoms that kept him out of action on Wednesday in Portland.
Even when he's dealing with illness, D-Will is the Nets' most important player. He is the catalyst, the electric ingredient that allows New Jersey to reach its full potential.
The stark difference between Wednesday's 101-88 loss to the Blazers and Friday's 110-98 win over the Wizards proved that in spades.
Even while dealing with lingering effects of the stomach flu, Deron scored 19 points and added 13 assists. Friday's performance marked the fifth time in his last seven games that Deron has recorded 11 or more assists.
"We didn't finish the trip strong, we lost the last two games, so we wanted to get back on the winning track," D-Will told YES Network's Jessica Taff after the win. "We were able to do that tonight."
Deron got the Nets off to a great start, and proved that there were no lingering effects from his stomach bug, scoring 10 points with three assists, two rebounds and a steal in the first quarter alone. Behind his effort, the Nets led 33-20 after one.
They tacked onto that lead in the second thanks to four dimes from No. 8 and at halftime they held a 14-point advantage. Rather than let off the gas, as has been a problem for the Nets when carrying big lead this season, New Jersey kept the pedal down, pushing the lead as high as 19 points in the third. D-Will tacked on seven points and four assists in the quarter and the Nets took a 17-point lead into the fourth.
"We started off a lot better this game, but we played solid all through," Deron said. "Our defense was there for the most part. This is a good transition team and we were able to limit that. I think that's why we won tonight."
The lead allowed coach Avery Johnson to remove D-Will from the game just 76 seconds into the fourth quarter and rest No. 8 for the rest of the game. MarShon Brooks took over at the point and finished with 18 points, six rebounds and six assists. Afterward, D-Will complimented the rookie on one of his best games of the year.
"He played well," Deron said. "He looked good out there. He was passing the ball making the right plays. He looked really comfortable."
NETS PULL OUT WIN IN OT
The Nets game out of their rout of the Wizards brimming with confidence and at one point in Sunday's game against Cleveland, it looked like they would be able to put things on cruise control and coast to another victory.
Behind a D-Will orchestrated offense — he scored 12 points, and dished five assists through three quarters — and the inspired play of Gerald Green and Anthony Morrow off the bench, New Jersey controlled a majority of the game.
They led by nine points with less than 10 minutes left. But a furious Cavs rally — punctuated by a Lester Hudson 3-pointer with 0.3 seconds left— dashed that vision in a hurry and sent the game to overtime.
Despite allowing the deflating comeback, Deron and the Nets refused to fold and drop another game. The same might not have been said for this squad a couple of weeks ago.
Things have been different since New Jersey dropped a 105-84 result against Utah on March 26, D-Will said. Coach Avery Johnson called his team out afterward, and the Nets — led by their point guard — have responded emphatically, Deron told the Star-Ledger.
"You know, we took that (loss) to heart a little bit," Deron said. "We watched the film and guys saw how we ended that game and just really felt bad. It was a bad feeling in the locker room. So we have been playing better basketball."
The Nets felt a similar feeling creeping in on Sunday as the Cavs erased their lead and took momentum into overtime, so they responded. New Jersey quickly stomped out the Cavs' hopes of completing the comeback in the overtime period, scoring the extra frame's first four points.
The Nets took the lead back on a Kris Humphries dunk just one minute into the overtime session and never relinquished it. The second basket came on a magnificent alley-oop jam by Gerald Green, set up by — who else? — D-Will. Green finished with a team-high 32 points, many made possible by D-Will, who assisted on five of the high-flyer's 11 field goals.
From there, New Jersey was well on their way to a 122-117 win. The 122 points were a season-high output for the Nets. D-Will finished the game with 18 points and 10 assists — including two in the overtime session — for his 20th double-double of the year. He also added four steals and two rebounds as New Jersey picked up its third straight home victory and fifth win in their last seven games overall.
After the game, Johnson spoke to the New York Post, lauding his team's resiliency in the victory.
"We did not expect this game to go into overtime, and it did," Johnson said. "We just kept on fighting. That's what our team is all about, right now. This team, two weeks ago, would not have won this game."
It was a fitting night for the Nets to show such resilience, with owner Mikhail Prokhorov in attendance for the first time this season.
"Maybe he just needs to start coming a little bit more," D-Will joked. "We just battled the whole game. The team played tough."
The Nets will be on a mission to continue their hot streak and play the role of spoiler this week.
Seven of the team's final eight games come against East playoff contenders including a home and home battle this week against division rival Philadelphia. The Sixers visit the Prudential Center on Tuesday and then welcome the Nets to Wells Fargo Center in Philly on Friday.
Both games give the Nets chance to spoil the postseason hopes of sliding Philly. Leaders of the Atlantic Division for most of the season, the Sixers have lost 10 of their last 14 games to fall two spots. They now sit eighth in the Eastern Conference, clinging to their playoff spot by just one game.
"We just have to continue to win as many games as possible," Deron said of the Nets' approach down the stretch. "[We can] spoil some of these playoff teams' hopes."
Deron played one of his best games of the year in the Nets' only game against Philly so far this season. He scored 34 points on 14-of-28 shooting while also recording 11 assists, but it was his late game contributions that led the Nets to a win. His layup with 1.9 seconds to go sent the game to overtime tied at 82 and his trey with 26.8 seconds to go in OT gave the Nets the lead for good in the 97-90 victory on Jan. 25.
Tuesday's game can be seen at 7:30 ET on YES.
- Nets' Brooks seeing more time at point guard (New York Post, April 7, 2012)
- Nets defeat Wizards (New York Post, April 7, 2012)
- Nets go overtime to beat Cleveland, 122-117, with owner Mikhail Prokhorov watching (Star-Ledger, April 8, 2012)
- Nets defeat Cavaliers in OT with owner on hand (New York Post, April 9, 2012)
- Nets are tough enough in win over Cavs (The Record, April 9, 2012)