Deron Williams Emerges as Unlikely Unifying Force for Nets

The Brooklyn Nets opened this regular season with hope, hope that Deron Williams would bounce back after a lackluster, injury-prone season, and lead them to a top-four seed. That hope spiraled into desperation, after Williams struggled through arguably the least productive season of his career, and the team fell as low as 13 games below .500. Desperation turned to prayer, that a late-season surge would be enough to make the playoffs, and that the Indiana Pacers would lose on the season’s final day and allow the Nets to clinch the last spot.

On Monday night, the season circled back to hope. For at least one night, gone was the uninspiring 38-44 Brooklyn Nets; gone was banged-up Deron Williams, maddening Jarrett Jack, and an isolation-heavy offense. In its place was the team Brooklyn wanted all along, a competitive roster that went toe-to-toe with a 60-win team and escaped victorious, with a 120-115 overtime win over the top-seeded Atlanta Hawks, knotting the best-of-seven series at two games apiece.

They believe in the results, despite the ugly process that got them there. “The first thing coach (Hollins) said after Game 1 was, ‘this shows that we can compete, and I hope you guys believe, because we’re going to need that throughout the series,'” Brook Lopez said at his locker. “We can, obviously.”

“I don’t believe we’re your typical eighth seed,” Jack told The Brooklyn Game. “We got some big-time guys who have had big-time moments in this league. I’m not surprised by the way we’re playing. We have a number of guys who can come out here and take over ball games.”

Monday night, that big-time guy was Williams, who responded to criticism, poor play, and injuries with his best game in years. He scored 35 points (13-25 FG), his highest output in a single game since March 8, 2013. He hit seven three-pointers, the last a 27-foot twisting prayer as the shot clock ran low to give the Nets a 102-101 lead, a shot so pure Lionel Hollins could only thank God on the sidelines as it fell through the net. Nine seconds later, Williams tipped away a Jeff Teague pass in the lane for his third steal of the night, and turned it into one of Brook Lopez’s patented floaters.

“(Williams) has overcome a lot of adversity… with the injuries and with the negativity around his name,” Hollins said after the game. “For him to come out, it showed a lot of character to put on the performance like that, especially when we needed it. Because without that performance, I don’t know if we get out of here with a win.”

No Nets player has endured more criticism from Williams[note]And we at The Brooklyn Game are not absent from that cacophony.[/note], from fans, media members, and even former teammate Paul Pierce, who questioned Williams’s leadership and willingness to improve. The Nets rallied around Williams in the past two days, with public support from multiple teammates and coach Lionel Hollins. “I thought it was a huge, huge step in unity for our ball club,” Hollins added.

At least one member of the Nets, Jack, was surprised by Pierce’s comments, as they were coming from a former teammate. “Especially about something that’s in the past,” Jack said. “It’s over and done with. You know what I mean? If you had something you wanted to say or speak up on, you should’ve did it when you was in the locker room with him. And doing it publicly, I thought that was –”

“I don’t know. I ain’t gonna say it’s in poor taste, because I think Paul is professional, he probably just answered the question. But I probably wouldn’t have did it in that fashion.”

Williams has heard every word, and admitted in a candid moment that he’d let the criticism affect his play.

“I’ve had a lot of support in the last couple of days, with things that have been said, not only from my teammates but other people in my life,” Williams said at the podium. “It definitely means a lot. Jarrett’s talked to me a lot about being aggressive, and just keeping my head on. I do have a tendency to get down on myself pretty hard and pretty quick, and so he definitely told me I was due for one.”

The Nets shared the ball, recording 25 assists, with six players dishing out at least three. Six players scored in double figures.

In perhaps the play of the night — non-Deron Williams edition, of course — Brook Lopez dished out of a double-team deep in the paint to Bojan Bogdanovic for a wide open corner three-pointer. It was both Lopez’s third assist of the night, on a read he rarely made in the past, and redemption for Bogdanovic, after letting Paul Millsap blow past him for the game-tying layup in regulation.

“He did a pirouette and threw it out to Bogey and Bogey hit the big three,” Hollins noted. “To me, those types of plays are just as important as the rebounding, just as important as the scoring.”

But the night was all about Williams. When asked to analyze his own game, he kept it straight: “It was an important game,” he said. “We really needed to get this win to stay in the series. It was definitely one of my better games this year for sure, and probably as a Net.”

The Nets still need to win one game on the road to win the series, something they haven’t done in Atlanta all season. But two wins was more than most people[note]Again, including The Brooklyn Game.[/note] allowed.

“Now the series is a bit interesting,” Jack said with a knowing smile. “After people thought we were gonna get swept, now it’s best two out of three.”