BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- There have been far more questions than answers for Deron Williams in the last three years.
What's wrong with his ankles? Where's his jump shot? Why isn't he attacking the basket? Does he appreciate our concern for his health?
As surprising losses and criticism mounted for Williams, he didn't do himself any favors. He played well in the team's two wins, but put on a frightening disappearing act in the series' fourth quarters. Kyle Lowry outplayed him handily in the crucial Game 5, dropping 36 points to Williams's 13 and scoring seven points late.
His disappearing act was even chronicled by a fan, who posted this on a pole in front of Barclays Center, at the intersection of Atlantic Avenue and Fort Greene Place.
— michael cummo (@michaelcummo) May 2, 2014
But amidst a sea of criticism and with his team on the brink of elimination, Deron Williams showed the hell up on Friday night.
Where is Deron Williams?
Call off the search party.
After the game, coach Jason Kidd chuckled to himself, giving a reporter an incredulous look when he mentioned the criticism Williams has gotten in the last few days.
"Now, who would dare do that?" Kidd said into the microphone. The reporter, Rod Boone of Newsday, said it wasn't him. "Oh, so it's other people. It was the others. Well, that's why you read it in the bathroom."
After laughter, Kidd continued. "We're professional. Everyone has the right to their opinion, and it just shows the type of player (he is), and what he's all about that he stood up to whatever was said, and he responded with one of his best games."
Williams led the Nets to their biggest win of the best-of-seven series, a 97-83 victory that knotted the series at three games apiece and forces a winner-take-all Game 7 in Toronto.
He didn't take long, either. Williams started the game with a subtle, smart play: a flare screen in the corner for "Brooklyn's Backcourt" teammate Joe Johnson, one that got Johnson an open layup. A few minutes later, Williams darted around a Kevin Garnett screen, took a parabolic angle to the basket, and Euro-stepped around Lowry for a reverse layup.
"I know I needed to be more aggressive after the last two losses," Williams admitted at the podium after the win, one of his few happy podium games in two years. "The three games we've won, I've been really aggressive, getting into the paint, making things happen. Not only scoring the ball, but making the extra pass. I know that's what my team needs me to do, and so I wanted to come out early and establish that."
Williams finished with a team-high 23 points, shooting 8-16 from the field, adding five assists, four rebounds, one steal, and a team-high plus-minus of +25 in 38 minutes.
He nearly left the game in the third quarter, after an ankle twist on a drive to the basket sent him crashing to the floor, writhing in pain.
But after a minute to reset, Williams shot two free throws and stayed in the game, hitting a corner three-pointer shortly after and showing little ill effect from the injury. Williams said he'll get treatment on the ankle heading into the game.
The Nets built a 26-point lead in the third quarter, and it looked like a rout was on. But the Raptors cut the lead to 89-79, and the Nets called on Williams once again to make a play. He delivered, turning around a double-screen from Joe Johnson & Paul Pierce and burying an open three-pointer with 75 seconds left.
"I thought Deron showed a lot of heart, a lot of grit," Kevin Garnett added in the locker room, before chuckling. "I would like to use another word, but I can't."
Like any NBA game, one man does not a victory make. Joe Johnson scored early and often, pouring in shots with his usual variety. Paul Pierce crafted baskets out of thin air. Garnett hit four shots in the paint. Alan Anderson, who Kidd decided would start for Shaun Livingston that morning, set a career-high in rebounds, hounded DeMar DeRozan, and prevented the Raptors from double-teaming Johnson. Andray Blatche provided a surprising performance on defense.
But the road to this victory started with Deron Williams, and it leads to Toronto for Brooklyn's second first-round Game 7 in as many years.
"We definitely remember that game, but this is a new team," Williams said. "I've said it a million times. This is a new team, a new season. We're excited about this opportunity. I've been on a team that's won a Game 7 on the road before, so it can be done. It's going to take a lot of hard work, a lot of grit, and we've got to be ready to go into a hostile environment."
With that, Williams left the podium, which he'd shared with Pierce to close the night's interviews. But on a team with Hall of Famers and legendary crunch-time performers and facing arguably his largest mountain of criticism yet, Williams validated himself with an All-Star performance in a dominating playoff victory.