Nets get their leader back as Williams shines

Jason Kidd, Deron Williams
Deron Williams was all smiles after Tuesday night’s victory over the Boston Celtics. (AP)
Jason Kidd, Deron Williams
Deron Williams was all smiles after Tuesday night’s victory over the Boston Celtics. (AP)

BROOKLYN, N.Y. — If Tuesday night’s game taught us anything, it’s that the Nets have desperately missed their franchise point guard.

It’s not often this season we see a loose Brooklyn Nets locker room, but that was the case after tonight’s relatively easy victory over the Boston Celtics, particularly from the mercurial Deron Williams. Williams was loose, smiling and laughing through questions, and after his performance against the Celtics, it’s not hard to imagine why.

Perhaps nobody said it better than Brook Lopez, who couldn’t find the words at all.

“I mean, he’s D-Will,” Lopez said. “It’s so simple. He’s D-Will. It’s tough to quantify and put into words but the energy he gives us out there, the composure, the leadership, and other teams have to respect him.

“He’s one that can put pressure,” coach Jason Kidd said about his star point guard after the game. “After we secure the ball and rebound, he’s that guy that can put pressure in a single fast break and (set) the table for his teammates. I thought he did that.”

“D-Will set the tone for how we were going to play tonight,” Garnett espoused in an animated postgame interview. “I thought against their pressure, he went back at the pressure. He set up a lot of us up for easy shots that we could make. We did a lot of inside-out play with Brook, playing off him, and kept it simple.”

He definitely set the tone. Williams gave the Nets a new identity immediately. No longer reliant on erratic second-year guard Tyshawn Taylor or physically limited Shaun Livingston, Williams darted in and out of the lane, set up teammates for easy buckets, and led the Nets with a game-high 25 points and seven assists on 10-16 shooting:

Kidd told YES Network before the game that he expected Williams to play 22-24 minutes, but the game flow wouldn’t allow that. With 27 minutes already under his belt, Kidd inserted Williams into the lineup with just over ten minutes left, keeping him in until the final seconds. “I thought I was on restrictions,” Williams said, “(But) when he put me in with ten minutes left to go in the fourth, I guess it was off.”

Kidd had Williams on a steadfast minutes restriction to begin the season, refusing to even stretch his minutes against the defending champion Miami Heat. But Williams acknowledged that he felt — and looked — far better against the Celtics tonight than he did at that point in time, and that getting into the lane was his priority. “(That’s) something I couldn’t do when I first came back, when I first started the season,” Williams said of his aggressive nature. “That’s how I want to play. That’s how I play.”

His teammates feed off that aggression, and recognize his combination of size, speed, and playmaking ability.

“It’s a huge difference,” Garnett said of Williams. “Not only does he put the refs in situations to make calls, he understands flow. Not to say our other guys don’t, but that’s the reason he starts. Avery Bradley is a very good defensive player who puts on a lot of pressure and is able to dictate pace of the game, and you have to have savvy, strong-minded point guards who understand flow and rhythm. I thought Deron did a great job of just taking the game and understanding it and controlling it the whole game.”

Williams didn’t take the time off to relax. He’s been working hard with the team’s trainers and assistant coaches to keep his body in as close to playing shape as possible, though he knows only one practice isn’t enough for proper game shape.

The thoughtful Williams also kept a keen eye on the court, looking for trends and things to improve on. “I observed some things I felt like we could do better, that when I came back I could be conscious of,” Williams explained in the locker room. “One of the things was pushing the ball. I felt like we played a little too slow and we definitely needed to pick the pace up. That’s why i was really conscious to push the ball and try to get things going and get some easy baskets.”

The team plays at a much faster pace with Williams on the court this season — nearly five more possessions per game with him on the floor than off it — but weirdly, the opposite was true Tuesday: the Nets played a significantly slower pace in last night’s game with Williams on the floor. He wasn’t wrong about his impact on transition, though: the Nets had ten fast-break points in the first three quarters, more than their season average of 8.8.

As for how his ankle feels? Usually, you’d hear Williams dismiss the question with his standardized refrain of frustration: I appreciate your concern for my health. But not after a stellar game like Tuesday night. Instead, Williams smiled, looked up, and said: “I’ll tell you in the morning.”

If it feels as good as it looked tonight, the Nets may be closer to the team they expected to be.