It took Deron Williams and the Brooklyn Nets time to develop a rhythm in the 2014-15 campaign, but as the season enters crunch time, D-Will and his team have hit their stride at just the right time.
On Friday night in Brooklyn, Deron dominated a showdown with the playoff-bound Toronto Raptors, scoring a season-high 31 points and dropping 11 assists to lead the Nets to a 114-109 victory over the Raptors at Barclays Center. Deron was as efficient as he was effective in the victorious effort, connecting on 11-of-18 shots, including 5-of-7 from three.
The performance built off D-Will’s 26-point night in Wednesday’s win over the New York Knicks and gave Deron his first back-to-back 25-plus point games of the season.
“It’s been really hard at times to get into a rhythm out here this year,” D-Will said. “I feel like the last couple games, I’ve been more aggressive and been able to get into a rhythm. Coach drew up some plays for me. I felt really good out there.”
It was also D-Will’s first 30-plus point game in what has been a trying season for both he and his team. But an uptick, both individual and collective, has come along in recent weeks. The win over Toronto was Brooklyn’s sixth straight overall and their fourth straight at home, where they have compiled just a 16-20 mark this season.
Afterward, No. 8 remarked on how good it felt to operate at a high-level from start to finish at home.
“This was definitely a good win for us, good win for our fans. We definitely have struggled here[in Brooklyn] all season and this was a quality win against a really good team.”
That really good team in Toronto, which has built a rivalry with the Nets after last year’s seven-game playoff battle, didn’t make it easy on Brooklyn to walk away with the win. Friday’s game featured 13 ties and 14 lead changes and played out like a heavyweight prize fight in the second half, with each team landing shots there were quickly countered by the opposition.
As has been their modus operandi over the course of the winning streak, the Nets got off to a hot start with help from their revitalized point guard. Deron was equal parts scorer and facilitator in the first frame, when he tallied 11 points and dished out a trio of assists.
He showed off that aggressiveness he spoke of afterward early and often, driving into the teeth of the defense. He made his first contributions on the scoreboard with a pair of free throws, then added a running bank shot to give the Nets a 12-11 lead. He followed that with a dime to Thaddeus Young which he converted through contact. The free throw gave the Nets a four-point lead.
The Raptors pulled within two multiple times in the first, but D-Will and the Nets had an answer each time, as Deron dished to Brook Lopez for a hook and then Young again on the drive to keep Brooklyn in front. But it was in the final four minutes of the frame that the Deron really pushed the pace and as a result pushed the Nets out to a big lead.
He drove in for a layup with just under four minutes left in the frame to put Brooklyn up by eight, then buried a trey with a little over two minutes remaining to re-establish that eight-point advantage. Moments after that deep jumper, he knifed through the defense and connected for another layup to give the Nets a 10-point lead, and after one they led 34-27.
After playing the entire opening quarter, Deron took a long breather in the second and Brooklyn’s bench couldn’t hold the lead. By the time D-Will checked back in at the halfway mark of the second, the game was tied. Two quick fouls then forced No. 8 to the bench with 3:58 left in the half and he remained there for the rest of the frame, as the Raptors rallied to take a five-point 54-49 halftime lead.
But after watching his reserves squander a lead in the second quarter, Nets coach Lionel Hollins made a decision that would set the tone for a thrilling second half.
“I just wasn’t confident in the bench and how they performed in the first half,” Hollins said. “We just weren’t guarding and we weren’t scoring so I decided when we left the locker room that I was going to ride [the starters] and try to see if they could bring us home.”
As a result, after logging just 2:18 of playing time in the second frame, Deron played all 24 minutes in the second half, and he and his fellow Nets starters indeed brought it home. Toronto held the lead for much of the third quarter and pushed it as high as nine in the first few minutes of the half. But after multiple possessions where he was fouled and didn’t get a call, D-Will got fed up and took it out on the Raptors.
“I had a couple no calls, I thought. I got a little frustrated with the lack of calls,” he commented afterward, noting that the frustration fueled his fire. “But it happens, and it might not even have been a foul, who knows. I just thought it was, and [the frustration] helped.”
Five minutes into the half, he hit a trey off a feed from Joe Johnson to cut the Brooklyn deficit to six. It was the beginning of a string of 10 straight Nets points scored by No. 8 over a stretch of just 90 seconds, and he tallied them by any means necessary, chipping in a driving layup, a pull-up jumper another trey.
Unfortunately, Toronto had an answer for each and every bucket and the net result of Deron’s torrid stretch was still six-point deficit. However the Nets defense buckled down in the final minutes of the third and finally started to string together some stops to allow the Nets to close the gap. D-Will’s third trey of the frame cut the deficit to four and moment later after a Brook Lopez steal, No. 8 dished to Young for a flush that pulled Brooklyn within two.
Deron tallied three more assists in the final three minutes of the third, all to Brook Lopez, which kept the Nets within striking range and as the game entered the final quarter, they were down just two, 79-77. Hollins made the call to stick with his starters to begin the fourth and it paid off immediately when D-Will remedied the deficit in the first 11 seconds of the quarter when he drove in and knocked down a floater to tie the score. From there, it was a back and forth battle with eight ties and nine lead changes in the final quarter alone. Throughout that final frame, the Nets created offense expertly, connecting on better than 59 percent of their shots, but with each bucket, the Raptors had an answer.
Early in the frame, No. 8 facilitated for his big men, finding Lopez and then Young for buckets that each bucket put the Nets in front. Young’s layup put Brooklyn up one with 6:17 remaining and was followed by a timeout at the halfway mark of the final frame. Out of that timeout, the Nets executed a beautiful play where D-Will used the pick and roll to draw two defenders, then found Lopez in stride with a bounce pass that gave the big man a wide-open dunk to put the Nets up three. But that work was undone on the other end, where Lou Williams connected on a circus three to tie the score at 97-97.
“We couldn’t get stops tonight. Luckily we made the plays offensively we needed to,” Deron said. “Those guys were amazing tonight, hitting shot after shot. We thought we could pull away with some of the shots we were hitting and they came right back.”
The Raptors took a one-point lead into the final four minutes of the game, but Deron drew a foul with 3:25 to play and connected on both free throws to put the Nets up one. That set up a furious final few minutes. After a bucket by Lopez put Brooklyn up two, Lou Williams hit another miraculous three to give the Raptors the lead.
After Thaddeus Young and Demar Derozan exchanged salvos, D-Will followed DeRozan’s bucket with one of the biggest shots of the night, a three that put the Nets up two with 46.2 seconds left. Afterward, No. 8 described how the opportunity came out a pet play that Brooklyn used repeatedly in the late stages of the game.
“It just happened so fast,” he said. “We were running the same play for a while down the stretch and we kept getting a couple options [out of it]. I swung it to Joe and he swung it back to me, and I hit the three.”
DeRozan followed with a pull-up jumper to tie the score with 36.9 seconds left. On the other end, the Nets went back to the same play that had resulted in D-Will’s three. But this time, D-Will turned down the pick and roll and tried to knock down a floater. Though he missed, the ball was tipped in the air by Lopez and corralled by Young who went back up for the layup to give Brooklyn the lead for good.
It was a play eerily similar to Lopez’s game-winner off Deron’s miss two nights earlier at Madison Square Garden and after the latest instance, No. 8 lauded his big men for their efforts on the glass.
“Luckily for the second game in a row Brook got his hands on it and tipped it to Thad,” he said.
The Nets followed Young’s bucket with a stop on defense and closed the game out at the free throw line to pull off their sixth straight win. The victory moved Brooklyn into sole possession of seventh in the East with seven games to play. They currently sit one game up on eighth place Miami and 1.5 in front of ninth place Boston. They’re also just 2.5 behind sixth place Milwaukee. After the game, D-Will talked to YES Network’s Sarah Kustok about the playoff push.
The Nets (35-40) didn’t have any time to revel in their big win as they departed Brooklyn on Friday night and headed to Atlanta, where they will take on the East-leading Hawks (56-19) at Philips Arena on Saturday night.
After Friday’s win, Deron mentioned how the quick turnaround played into Brooklyn’s focus over the final stretch of the season.
“This is a tough stretch, but at the same time, we’re focused on one game at a time,” he said. “This is a really good win. Now we have to fly to Atlanta and get some energy against a team that’s the best in the East.”
The game will be the third meeting between the Nets and Hawks this season, and they’ll match up twice in the next five days, as Atlanta comes to town next Wednesday. Brooklyn has dropped the first two games, the last one coming in late January.
The Nets will need to find a better formula for success to sweep the back-to-back and run their win streak to seven. In the last instance of a Friday-Saturday home-road back-to-back, the Nets recovered from a thrilling Friday night triple overtime win over the Bucks in Brooklyn and went on to beat the Pacers in Indiana the next night. D-Will, who tallied 15 points in the first quarter of that game in Indiana after logging just three minutes between the fourth quarter and three overtimes the night prior, said the Nets will need some reserve players to step up after the starters played the majority, and in Deron’s case all, of the second half Friday.
“Hopefully we have [energy] again tomorrow,” he said. “I didn’t play a lot of minutes that game and I kind of got the team going that next night. The guys that didn’t have big minutes tonight, hopefully they can get us going.”
Tip-off from Atlanta is slated for 7:30 p.m. ET and the game can be seen on YES Network.