The road from that moment to this one has been a tumultuous one for the Nets, marred by injuries to both players that have hampered their performance, and that of the team. But on Friday night, the duo was at its best and combined to help Brooklyn take command of their first round playoff series with the Toronto Raptors with a victory in Game 3.
After scoring 22 points and doling out eight assists, including four that went to Johnson, who finished with a team-high 29 points, Deron explained the evolution of the duo’s relationship and what has contributed to their recent success.
“We had to learn to play with each other. We’re two guys who had the ball in our hands a lot and we’ve had to learn to share the ball, and also where each other is going to be. We have a great understanding of that right now,” D-Will said. “When Joe is playing in the post, I know where the double team is coming from and where I need to be, and he knows where to find me. The same thing when I have the ball, I know where he’s going to be. It’s fun to play with him like that.”
It was Deron who got the Nets off to a hot start, with eight points and a pair of assists in the opening frame of Friday night’s game.
His first dime came just 37 seconds into the game, when he dished to Garnett for a layup to give the Nets the early lead. Garnett returned the favor less than two minutes later, finding D-Will for a spot up three that broke a 4-4 tie.
No. 8 buried another trey shortly thereafter to put Brooklyn ahead four, and then it was Johnson who put the Nets in front by six on two separate occasions.
“Joe is causing a lot of problems where teams are looking to double team or trap him and his teammates are stepping up,” Nets coach Jason Kidd said. “Deron is one of those guys. Deron was finding the open guys and he was aggressive the whole night.”
Despite the fast start by Brooklyn’s Backcourt, as the quarter wound down, the Raptors began to find their footing. D-Will briefly stemmed their run with a floater that put the Nets in front 16-12 with five minutes remaining in the quarter, but Toronto followed by scoring nine of the final 12 points in the first and took a 23-19 lead into the second.
The game continued to be a low-scoring affair deep into the second, as coach Jason Kidd got D-Will and Johnson an extended break. When the two re-entered with 6:32 remaining in the half, the Raptors held a 35-33 lead.
But that wouldn’t last, as No. 8 pushed the pace in an effort to send the Nets in at halftime with a lead.
Shortly after returning to the floor, D-Will grabbed a long rebound and took it coast-to-coast for a layup that tied the score at 35. Later, with the Nets ahead 45-41 and just over a minute left in the half, No. 8 took the ball to the basket and drew a foul, allowing Brooklyn to pull ahead by six after his subsequent free throws.
On Toronto’s next possession, D-Will poked the ball away from Terrance Ross and after a scramble on the floor, Kevin Garnett came up with the ball, obtaining possession for the Nets.
The hustle play by Deron and KG set off the home crowd at Barclays Center and Garnett fanned those flames when he got up off the floor and let out a yell while yanking the “Brooklyn” on his jersey to show his passion for the borough.
“KG was everywhere tonight. He was his normal fiery self. He was big for us. He provides so much energy, so much leadership on the floor and we feed off his energy,” D-Will said. “The crowd gets into it on hustle plays, big shots and dunks. We feed off them and they feed off of us. Our crowd was great tonight and they continue to be great.”
No. 8 kept those fans on their feet following Garnett’s play as he capitalized on the Toronto turnover by crossing up Raptors guard Kyle Lowry before burying a step-back jumper to make 49-41 Nets with 39.1 seconds left in the half. At halftime, Brooklyn held a four-point lead.
The Nets pushed that lead in the third as D-Will and Johnson developed a rhythm that led to a flurry of Brooklyn baskets.
No. 8 kicked it off with a floater just 12 seconds into the quarter to extend the lead to six, then pushed it to seven with another floater two minutes later. Johnson then scored 10 consecutive points, highlighted by consecutive that both came off feeds from D-Will. Deron also found Joe for a floater that gave the Nets a 63-52 lead with 6:22 left in the third.
“Things just kind of opened up and the basket got real big for me,” Johnson said. “It all came together in that second and third quarter. It’s just moving the basketball. I know in transition D-Will is going to be spotting up and I know if he’s spotting up what I’ve got, so it’s just instincts. We play off instincts. It’s not something you come into the game thinking about. It’s just reaction.”
Toronto was able to cut the lead from 11 to four with 1:39 left in the third, but No. 8 helped the Nets close strong. First he found Pierce for a three that extended the lead to seven. Moments later D-Will stole the ball from Greivis Vasquez, drew a quick foul and made both free throws to make it a nine-point game. Pierce added a step back jumper 2.7 seconds before the buzzer to give Brooklyn a 77-66 lead going into the fourth.
No. 8 continued his sharing streak into the fourth when he found Mirza Teletovic for a triple just 42 seconds into the fourth that put the Nets up by 14. D-Will exited shortly after that assist and got a break of four-and-a-half minutes, during which the Nets reserves maintained a double-digit lead.
When Deron returned to the game with 5:59 left in the fourth, the Nets advantage was 13 and after Toronto cut it to 12, Brooklyn’s backcourt did the damage again, as D-Will found Johnson for another three to push the Nets edge to 93-78 with 5:02 remaining. The 15-point advantage was Brooklyn’s largest of the game and it appeared they had the game in hand.
But the Raptors did not make it easy on the Nets. Over the next four minutes after Johnson’s trey, Toronto outscored Brooklyn 13-2 to cut the lead down to four with 1:07 to go.
“When we’re up 15, we have to work on extending that and putting teams away, especially in our building when we have the crowd behind us,” D-Will said. “We have to put our foot on people and we didn’t do that tonight.”
“Honestly I think we got a little lackadaisical after we were up 15 with five minutes left,” Johnson added. “But that’s very uncharacteristic of us to blow a lead like that. I’m sure J-Kidd will look at it and we’ll see some things we can improve on and get better at.”
Deron again briefly stopped the run when he drew a foul from Greivis Vasquez. Originally just a two-shot foul, D-Will got three attempts at the line after Vasquez was whistled for a technical for arguing the call.
No. 8 made two of his three attempts at the line to push the edge to six, however moments later he missed two after Toronto intentionally fouled him. The misses gave the Raptors possession down four and Demar DeRozan converted a three-point play by sinking a driving layup while drawing a foul. When DeRozan hit the free throw that followed, the Nets lead was down to just one, 97-96.
But that’s as close as Toronto would get. Pierce and Johnson each made a pair of free throws in the final 15 seconds to put the game away and give the Nets a 2-1 lead in the series, a position they were unable to attain in last season’s first round series against the Chicago Bulls.
Although the Williams-Johnson backcourt touted at Brooklyn’s Borough Hall nearly two years ago remains the base of the team nearly two years later, D-Will noted after Friday’s win that the shape of the series after three is far from the only difference between last year’s squad and the Nets as currently constituted.
“We’re up 2-1, that’s a little different. But this is just a different team. We’ve added a lot of guys. I don’t know how many guys that we have who were on the team last year but it’s a totally different team, a totally different feeling,” he said. “We brought in guys who have a lot of championship experience, we brought in a lot of leadership and it’s rubbing off on everybody. It’s contagious.
“We enjoy playing with each other and we’re having fun playing with each other. That’s not to say we weren’t last year but we’re enjoying the run. We had some struggles early on in the season, but we righted that ship and we’re trying to make a run.”
Before the Nets can make a run, there’s the matter of finishing off the first round series and advancing the way they couldn’t last season.
They have a golden opportunity to do that, with a 2-1 lead and two home games in front of them in Game 4 and Game 6. However D-Will cautioned on Friday night that the Nets cannot get too far ahead of themselves.
“We’re going to take it one game at a time. Right now, we’re worried about Sunday. We just have to take it one game at a time, one possession at a time,” Deron said. “Every possession counts, every possession matters. We’re going to got watch the film and see how we can get better, see how we can improve on the last game.”
Tip-off of Sunday’s Game 4 is scheduled for 7 p.m. at the Barclays Center and the game can be seen locally on YES or nationally on TNT.
- Now that’s D-Will (ESPN New York, April 26, 2014)
- Postgame: Johnson and Williams (NBA.com, April 25, 2014)
- Brooklyn stands up! Nets drop Raptors, 102-98 (Nets Daily, April 25, 2014)
- Deron Williams, Joe Johnson to the rescue (The Record, April 26, 2014)
- Nets hold off Raptors, take 2-1 series lead (NY Post, April 25, 2014)
- Dynamic duo of Johnson and Williams help Nets finish (NY Post, April 26, 2014)
- Moment of truth as Pierce comes alive for Nets (NY Post, April 26, 2014)
- Nets hold off Raptors late in Game 3 (NY Daily News, April 26, 2014)
- Nets hang on to defeat surging Raptors (NY Daily News, April 26, 2014)
- Pierce and Garnett wake up silent Nets crowd (NY Daily News, April 26, 2014)
- Nets Hold Off Raptors, Take 2-1 Series Lead (Wall-Street Journal, April 25, 2014)
- Brooklyn’s Backcourt Spoils Ujiri’s Trip to Brooklyn (Sheridan Hoops, April 26, 2014)
- Nets’ win, in some ways, feels like a loss (ESPN New York, April 26, 2014)
- Joe Johnson scores 29 as Nets top Raptors (Newsday, April 26, 2014)
- Nets give fans something to cheer about (Newsday, April 26, 2014)
- Deron Williams has his ups and downs — as do the Nets (Newsday, April 26, 2014)
- Nets Avoid Collapse and Put the Raptors in a Hole (NY Times, April 26, 2014)
- Nets win Game 3 in nail-biter, 102-98 (The Record, April 25, 2014)