The Extra Pass: Deron Williams is the difference for Nets; plus Thursday’s recaps

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By Brett Pollakoff

NEW YORK — It was only a week ago that the Nets were a sinking ship on the verge of capsizing completely, following consecutive losses at home where the team didn’t even seem capable of competing much less staying close enough to win for anywhere near the requisite 48 minutes.

Jason Kidd may or may not have been on the hot seat, depending on your view, but it was clear there was some frustration beginning to creep into the inner circles of a team that entered the season with so much promise.

But injuries have played a huge role in how things have unfolded in Brooklyn thus far, and as it turned out, last week’s embarrassing 30-point loss to the Knicks that had both players and coaches searching for answers ended up being the team’s last to date. Behind a second straight strong performance from Deron Williams, the Nets overcame a slow start and blew out the Clippers 102-93 for their third straight win, the longest such streak the team has seen this season.

“He is the head of the snake that drives this engine,” Paul Pierce said of his point guard afterward. “We’re a whole different team, just the way we play offensively and defensively with him out there.”

Williams was electric in this one, particularly during the second quarter where he seemed to become noticeably engaged while battling Chris Paul.

After the Nets fell behind by 12 points in the first quarter, the bench unit came in and closed the gap. When Williams returned with just under six minutes left before halftime, the game was tied. But he made sure to give his team some separation with a series of crossovers that freed him for open looks, the final one coming after he lost Paul at the top of the arc and then finished at the rim to push the Nets lead to 12 at the break.

Williams scored 12 points in that short span, and cleanly outplayed Paul in just his second game back from injury.

The Nets are a team lacking in speed and athleticism for the most part, but Williams solves a lot of that at the point guard position. Without him, the offense simply couldn’t go. With him playing at an All-Star level, it’s an entirely different story — one that the team hoped they would get to see play out far differently than things have so far.

“He has to be our leader,” Pierce said. “Hands down. He changes the outlook of this team. I mean, if you just look — we look like a whole different team now with him out there, the way we’re able to get easier baskets, put pressure on the defense. Understanding what we’re trying to accomplish out there, a lot of times we look kind of unorganized. But with him out there, as a leader and as a point guard, he’s getting us in the right spots. And that’s what I envisioned.”

Williams is confident in what he does and what he brings to the table, but was humble at the same time in discussing what the difference has been over these last couple of games — wins that have turned the Nets from a certifiable disaster to a team that appears to be, at the very least, headed in the right direction.

“You can see that kind of the energy has picked up, the pace has picked up,” Williams said. “I think, you know, I have a little bit to do with that, but I can’t take all the credit. We’re playing well right now as a team, we’re moving the ball, we’re helping each other out, we’re talking. It looks like we’re having fun out there, so I think that’s the difference.”

The biggest difference may just be the Nets finally getting healthy, although they lost Brook Lopez in the third quarter of this one with another ankle injury. Lopez was upbeat in the locker room afterward and said he will travel with the team and hopes not to miss any time, but that his status for the next game will ultimately be in the team trainer’s hands.

Williams firmly in place, though, significantly increases Brooklyn’s chances for success. He wouldn’t make too much out of a small winning streak, but clearly sees the possibility of the pieces beginning to fit now that he’s back in action.

“It’s getting that way,” he said. “Hopefully we can keep it going. While I was sitting out, looking at the standings we knew we were still in it. Even though as poorly as we played, as bad as things have been, a couple games could turn it around. It’s our first win streak of the season, so hopefully we can keep it going and build something special.”




Nets 102, Clippers 93: This game started pretty much as we all expected — the Clippers starters overwhelmed the Nets starters and were up 12 in the first quarter. The Nets defense was awful and the Clipper ball movement was beautiful. We knew how this would go… and then the two teams started to get into their benches. Everything changed. Brooklyn started playing much better defense and put up 36 points in the second quarter. Suddenly we had a game. Except we didn’t. A 14-4 Nets run late in the first half and a 12-4 run early in the second turned this into a Nets rout. Joe Johnson had 21 points and Deron Williams had an awesome second quarter on his way to 15. Great win for Brooklyn and Jason Kidd, on the flip side Doc Rivers isn’t going to sleep well tonight. The Clippers are now 5-6 against the lowly East.

Trail Blazers 111, Rockets 104: Go ahead and add Houston to the list of top teams the Trail Blazers have knocked off lately. Once again they did it with a stellar offense (109.7 points per 100 possessions pace) and just enough defense to get it done. LaMarcus Aldridge started 1-of-8 shooting then found a groove and was 11-of-14 the rest of the way to finish with 31 points and 25 rebounds. Dwight Howard put up 32 points and 17 rebounds and James Harden had 25, helping the Rockets tie the game at 76-76 after three quarters, but a 10-0 Blazers run to start the fourth gave the Blazers a lead they never lost.

Tom Thibodeau denies report of Andrew Wiggins’ unhappiness as Timberwolves’ third option

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As soon as a rumor emerged Andrew Wiggins told teammates he was unhappy as the Timberwolves’ third option behind Jimmy Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns, Kurt predicted denials from Minnesota.

Here they are – at least one.

Wiggins, via Jerry Zgoda of the Star Tribune:

“It’s just someone’s word of mouth. It wasn’t no quote from me. Everyone that knows me knows I don’t talk much, I just go with the flow … I don’t whisper. If I say something, I’m going to say it clearly and loudly.”

Timberwolves president-coach Tom Thibodeau, via Zgoda:

“I know Andrew’s character. There’s no way in the world Andrew is saying any of that, particularly from a guy who’s taken the most shots on our team.”

Thibodeau sounds as if he’s just trying to shut down this talk, including maybe from Wiggins. That sure looks like a reminder to Wiggins that he leads Minnesota in shots. Thibodeau can’t know whether Wiggins complained to teammates. Thibodeau can defend his player publicly while implicitly warning his player to cut it out.

I’m unsure whether Wiggins actually denied it – whether he’s noting that he didn’t say it or just didn’t say it directly to the reporter, Darren Wolfson.

Wolfson is credible, and I believe he didn’t just make this up. But these things can sometimes get overblown as they get passed through the grapevine. If Wiggins is generally content in his role but told teammates he was struggling to get in rhythm a particular day because Butler and Towns were getting more shots, would that be noteworthy?

Wiggins’ statements to teammates could be inconsequential. They could signal a major problem brewing.

His response to the report doesn’t exactly lower the alarm. Wiggins doesn’t strike me as someone who speaks up loudly and clearly when confronted with an issue. When everyone in the world knew the Cavaliers were trading him for Kevin Love, Wiggins deflected. He remained vague when asked about the delay in signing his contract extension. To be fair, those were sensitive issues. But so is this.

Denied or not, Wiggins’ contentment on a team with Butler and Towns warrants monitoring.

Report: Grizzlies laugh and joke in locker room after 61-point loss

AP Photo/Chuck Burton

Marc Gasol lit into the Grizzlies.

And that was before their 61-point loss to the Hornets.

Gasol didn’t play in that one, but Memphis coach J.B. Bickerstaff took his turn with strong words after the game.

Bickerstaff, via Ronald Tillery of The Commercial Appeal:

“One thing when you’ve got a bunch of young guys is they don’t understand what it takes to survive in this league,” Bickerstaff said. “If you want to make it there’s a matter of bounce-back, a matter of pride, a matter of mental toughness that you have to show on every given night and every opportunity you get. What happened tonight… there’s no defending the way we played.

“You believe because there’s opportunities you can get out there, do whatever you want and it’s my turn to play. Everything in this league is hard earned. If you’re not willing to make that sacrifice then you shouldn’t be in this league. If you can’t prove to people that that’s what you’re about then you won’t be in this league.”


Bickerstaff nor Gasol were in the locker room when it opened for media after the game. Perhaps that was a good thing because several Grizzlies players didn’t appear to take the loss hard given the amount of laughter and joking between them.

My question for anyone who has a problem with this: What would brooding and sulking do for these players? Seriously. How specifically would that help?

Also, what’s the appropriate waiting period for laughing and joking after a bad loss? A day? A week? Are these players just supposed to be miserable until they win next – which, the way things are going, might be next season?

I have no problem with players enjoying themselves in the midst of a long and dreadful season. Joy is important – to basketball and life.

Maybe the young Grizzlies aren’t appropriately dedicated to winning. That very well could be. I just don’t think a few minutes of locker room kidding proves that.

Besides, Memphis trailed by 30+ the entire second half. There was plenty of time to absorb the magnitude of this defeat and reflect on it before the locker room opened to the media.

It’s tough on players when everyone knows the Grizzlies are better off losing and improving draft position. Maybe nobody told the players to intentionally lose, but tanking manifests in an attitude throughout the organization. I doubt Memphis players enjoyed last night’s game.

I’m not going to scold them for moving on and lightening the mood afterward.

Texas A&M sophomore Robert Williams, a potential lottery pick, declares for NBA draft

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A year ago, Robert Williams returned to Texas A&M despite looking like a probable first-round and potential lottery pick.

He cemented his place in the first round and increased his chances of going in the lottery this season. Now, he’s jumping to the NBA.

Austin Laymance of the Houston Chronicle:

Texas A&M sophomore forward Robert Williams is turning pro.

Williams announced his decision to enter the NBA draft and bypass his final two seasons of eligibility after the seventh-seeded Aggies lost to third-seeded Michigan 99-72 in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament Thursday night.

At 6-foot-10 with a 7-foot-4 wingspan, Williams should be a center at the next level. He’s a major leaper who puts that skill to good use blocking shots and finishing inside.

Texas A&M’s poor floor spacing – Williams often played with another big or two – did him no favors, but it clarified his role. Williams made important improvements as a defensive rebounder in his sophomore season. He also stalled as a jump shooter.

Williams will likely look better in the NBA. Though teams would love 3-point-shooting centers who also defend well, there aren’t enough to go around. When the other four positions provide spacing, shots open at the rim for players like Williams – whose rim protection is also valued in modern systems.

Report: Suns start coaching search now, before season ends

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Unlike last summer, there is going to be a lot of coaching changes this NBA offseason.

There are three teams — Phoenix, Memphis, and Milwaukee — who have interim coaches now and will conduct searches, plus at least a couple more firings are expected (Jeff Hornacek in New York and Frank Vogel in Orlando are both likely to be ousted, according to the buzz around the league, and there could be more). That’s at least five teams looking for a new coach.

The Phoenix Suns — who fired Earl Watson just three games into the season — are not wasting time, they are starting that search now, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

The Phoenix Suns are beginning their search for a new head coach now, a process that will include interim coach Jay Triano, general manager Ryan McDonough told ESPN…

“This is going to be a competitive marketplace,” McDonough told ESPN. “There are three of us with interim coaches in place, and we want to be able to hit the ground running. We don’t want to have to wait until the end of the regular season for candidates who aren’t with teams now. At the end of the regular season, we’ll be able to talk with coaches on non-playoff teams and we’ll need to work with playoff teams on what their approach will be on contacting (assistant) coaches still in the postseason.”

This is not going to be a fast process in Phoenix. For example, interim coach Jay Triano — who has done a respectable job since being thrown into the big chair — will get the chance to interview, but he reportedly (and understandably) wants a little time after the season ends to put together his pitch.

However, there are guys available now to interview — David Fizdale, for example — so why not get the early jump? This is going to be a wide-ranging search, for example, Jay Wright — still busy right now coaching Villanova in the NCAA Tournament — has been linked to this job. Again, never hurts to start early.

The Suns have one cornerstone player in Devin Booker and some other guys with potential to be part of the future there. The new coach needs to establish a culture and system that maximize that talent. Then McDonough needs to get a lot more quality players in to make this all work — he’s made some questionable decisions in the past (drafting Alex Len then giving a massive contract to Tyson Chandler is just the latest), now we’ll see if he can get this rebuild moving a little faster.