by Alex Sims, March 25, 2013
After a stringent weekend back-to-back, Deron Williams and the jet-setting Brooklyn Nets remain right in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff seeding race.
The Nets fell on Saturday in a 101-95 heartbreaker against the No. 4 squad in the Western Conference—the Los Angeles Clippers. But they turned around the following night and dug up the energy to clip the Phoenix Suns, 102-100.
But that wasn't the only good news for the Nets over the weekend. A loss by the Philadelphia 76ers on Friday guaranteed the franchise a slot in the NBA playoffs for the first time since the 2006-2007 season.
However, as D-Will — a seasoned playoff veteran with four trips to the postseason under his belt — pointed out, their work is far from done. Brooklyn still sits as the No. 4 seed in the East after a weekend split and No. 8 isn't satisfied with just a playoff spot.
"We expected this," Deron said of Brooklyn's playoff clinch. "It's not time to celebrate. It's great for the organization. It's great for the fans. But as far we're concerned we expected to be there. We're just trying to get as high a seed as possible."
After Sunday's win, the Nets moved to 3-1 on their eight-game road trip. And though it wasn't Brooklyn's most aesthetically pleasing performance of the year, D-Will was happy with the way his team was able find a way to win on the road in Phoenix.
"A win is a win. We will take it," Deron said on Sunday. "It is a good start (on the road). It wasn't the way we wanted to win it, but it's a win nonetheless and we're 3-1, which is pretty good so far for this road trip. If you'd have told us that before we started, we'd definitely have been happy with it."
The Nets started fast in Phoenix, with D-Will facilitating at a high level early. Late in the first, Deron picked the pocket of Suns forward P.J. Tucker and tossed a lob to Gerald Wallace for a huge alley-oop slam to tie the game at 14.
D-Will finds Crash for the big slam! We're knotted up at 14 in Phoenix! #BKNvsPHX
— Brooklyn Nets (@BrooklynNets) March 25, 2013
#Nets out here looking like Florida Gulf Coast
— The Brooklyn Game (@TheBKGame) March 25, 2013
Shortly after Wallace's jam, Deron connected with Kris Humphries on another alley-oop. This time, No. 8 threw a line drive from the left side near half court to the right side of the rim, where Humphries caught the pass and finished the play with a flush.
No. 8 had all six of Brooklyn's first-quarter assists and entered halftime with nine dimes. Meanwhile, Brook Lopez and Humphries each had 12 points in the first half, and the Nets were in control, leading by 55-43.
D-Will got off to a strong start early in the second half and knocked down consecutive shots to kick off the third quarter. The second bucket came when No. 8 drove hard down the right side and spun through. Though he became entangled with two Phoenix defenders, he tossed up a shot as he fell, which bounced off the rim and in, to give the Nets their largest lead of the game at 16.
But the Suns wouldn't be denied a win on their home floor so easily and mounted a rally in the third, behind a scoring explosion from Wesley Johnson. The Phoenix swingman went off for 17 points on 5-of-6 shooting from three in the third to bring his team back into the game.
Amidst the Suns run, D-Will took a feed from MarShon Brooks and buried a three from the right wing momentarily stemming Phoenix's surge. However, Johnson just kept shooting until Phoenix claimed a 76-75 advantage going into the final frame.
The Nets played on Sunday without their own prolific shooter named "Johnson," the second member of Brooklyn's Backcourt, Joe Johnson. Brooklyn's Johnson has been hampered by a nagging heel injury and added a quad contusion to his list of ailments during Saturday's game.
After Sunday's contest, D-Will admitted that the Nets are missing his presence, but also commented that his health will be more important come playoff time.
"If we're still winning, then everything is all right. We won today, so that's good," D-Will said. "But we're going to need him, there's no doubt about that. We're going to need Joe healthy. The most important thing for him is to get rest and get healthy. He's been battling, he's been playing through a lot of pain. You can see it and you can tell. He's been a warrior out here in the games he has played."
Without Joe Johnson's clutch presence in the fourth quarter on Sunday, D-Will and reserve guard C.J. Watson took on the task of bringing the Nets back. Watson hit a three early in the fourth to tie the game at 78 and finished the fourth with 12 points including 7-of-7 shooting from the free throw line.
As crunch time approached, the Nets and Suns went back and forth, and the score was tied four separate times. Shortly after the five-minute mark, D-Will finally broke that tie for good with a pull-up three-pointer. Deron's big trey gave the Nets a lead that they would never surrender.
Late free throws from D-Will and Watson helped the Nets to hold off the pesky Suns late. Still, Phoenix nearly tied the game on the final play of regulation.
Suns guard Goran Dragic intentionally missed the tail end of his two free throws in the final seconds with his team trailing by two. The plan nearly worked, as Hamed Haddadi took the rebound and put the ball back up, but his layup fell off the mark as time expired and Brooklyn escaped with a victory.
D-Will finished with 20 points and 11 assists for his 17th double-double of the season. And afterward, he acknowledged that the Nets dodged a bullet at the end of regulation.
"We definitely escaped with one," D-Will said of the Suns' close final play.
Just as D-Will guided the Nets to a narrow victory on Sunday, it was the Clippers who were led by their star point guard to a comeback victory on Saturday.
For the second time this season and 19th time in their careers, D-Will went head-to-head with fellow point guard and good friend Chris Paul of the Clippers. The point pair have been close ever since being drafted back-to-back in 2005, a factor that has also spawned a friendly rivalry between the two.
Though Paul got the best of it on Saturday, leading his team to a win with 29 points and 11 assists to Deron's 18 points and nine dimes, D-Will still holds a huge advantage in the all-time matchup 14-5 all-time.
"It's fun to play against Chris," D-Will said. "He's definitely one of the best point guards in this league, a great competitor and good friend of mine. I enjoy competing against him."
And although Brooklyn ended up on the wrong end of the outcome, D-Will was happy with how his team performed on the road against a talented, playoff-caliber squad in the Clippers.
"We came in here, we played a tough game," Deron said. "We played a good team tonight, a playoff team. We're happy with how well we played, but at the same time, we wanted to win. We felt like we could come in here and get a win."
Though the Nets put up a valiant effort, that included a lead of as much as eight in the second half and a five-point edge heading into the fourth quarter, the Clippers offense was too much for Brooklyn to handle in the final frame. D-Will said afterward that the Nets struggled to handle the Clippers dangerous pick-and-roll sets late in the game.
"They just pick-and-rolled us to death," Deron said. "I didn't think we did a good job as a team of defending it in the second half, and that's pretty much their bread-and-butter down the stretch."
Utilizing the pick-and-roll on nearly every possession, Los Angeles pulled ahead midway through the fourth. But D-Will wouldn't let his team go quietly. He led a quick charge inside of the five-minute mark, accounting for six straight points.
After hitting two free throws, Deron took a pass from Wallace off a curl and knocked down a 16-foot jumper. He then found Lopez through traffic for two underneath to cut the L.A. lead to two at 90-88. Lopez followed that up with a dunk off a timeout to tie the game at 90.
After the Lopez dunk, Paul hit a jumper to give the Clippers a two-point advantage. Shortly after with the Nets still trailing by two, D-Will saw his pass attempt to Wallace swiped away by Jamal Crawford, who took it to the other end for a fast-break slam. After the game, Deron complimented Crawford's hustle and anticipation, and admitted that he'd like to have that pass back.
"It was just a huge, costly play that I wish I could get back," D-Will said. "Gerald looks like he's open and as soon as I throw it, Jamal just kind of shoots back and then he breaks on the ball. He made a good play on the ball and it was a careless pass by me."
After the turnover, D-Will added a late three, however, the Nets were never able to make up the deficit and Paul was able to close out the game from the charity stripe.
Brooklyn (41-29) will benefit from a two-day break before continuing their road trip on Wednesday against the Portland TrailBlazers (33-37).
The game will be the second of two meetings between Portland and Brooklyn this season. The Nets took round one at the Barclays Center behind 15 points, 12 assists, four blocks and three steals from D-Will.
Deron and the Nets have been cranking up the intensity as the run to the playoffs continues. And as every game becomes increasingly important in the seeding race, the Nets will continue to approach every game as if it were a playoff game.
"That's what we're doing right now," D-Will said of Brooklyn's playoff mentality. "That's how we're trying to attack these last 14 games. It's the playoffs for us because of how everything is so tight. We're trying to catch New York, we're trying to catch Indiana, so every game counts."
Wednesday night's contest is slated for a 10:30 p.m. EST tip-off and will be broadcast nationally on ESPN.
- CP3 takes control in fourth to nip Nets (ESPN New York, March 24, 2013)
- Chris Paul leads Clippers past Nets (Newsday, March 23, 2013)
- Deron, Nets fall short vs. Paul, Clippers (New York Post, March 24, 2013)
- Nets not prepared to celebrate—yet (New York Post, March 24, 2013)
- Nets escape with 102-100 victory over lowly Suns (Associated Press, March 25, 2013)
- Brooklyn survives buzzer beater to top Suns (New York Daily News, March 24, 2013)
- Nets avoid being burned by Suns in Phoenix (New York Post, March 25, 2013)
- Nets Escape Slopfest With Win: Nets 102, Suns 100 (The Brooklyn Game, March 24, 2013)
- Nets hold on to beat Suns, 102-100 (Newsday, March 25, 2013)
- Nets edge Suns in Phoenix as Brook Lopez Scores 21 (New York Times, March 25, 2013)