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.”

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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.

PBT Extra: What does Boston do with No. 1 pick?

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Option A: Keep the pick, draft Markelle Fultz No. 1, go hard at Gordon Hayward this summer in free agency and if you strike out with him go hard at other guys, maybe in the 2018 class.

Option B: Trade the No. 1 pick for a package that includes Jimmy Butler (or, less likely, Paul George) and put together a roster to make a hard run at the Cavaliers next year.

Those aren’t the only two options on the table, but they represent the two paths the Boston Celtics can go down this off-season after landing the No. 1 pick in the draft. I delve into it more in this PBT Extra.

Expect them to go with option A — the chance to draft a potentially elite player, and have him under contract for years on an affordable rookie deal, is too smart a long-term move to pass up.

Report: Bucks to make Justin Zanik interim GM, do broad search to find

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The Milwaukee Bucks general manager John Hammond is on his way to Orlando, joining a new front office trying to turn the Magic — and their culture — around.

That means the Bucks need a new GM, and it was assumed long-time assistant GM Justin Zanik would step into the role. However, he may not be the long-term answer, according to a couple of reports.

Zanik will have the job in the short term, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

Marc Stein of ESPN broke the news on the broader search.

The Milwaukee Bucks have decided to commission a broad search for a new general manager, according to league sources. Sources told ESPN on Wednesday that Bucks consultant and longtime NBA executive Rod Thorn will lead the search on behalf of Milwaukee ownership, which is hopeful of attracting strong candidates given the Bucks’ on-the-rise status….

Current Bucks assistant general manager Justin Zanik will interview for the GM post and be given strong consideration to succeed Hammond, sources said.

Doing a broad search makes sense, the Bucks should explore their options even if they think the best one is the guy already doing the job. More information is a good thing.

The real question in Milwaukee is how much say Jason Kidd has over the roster — is he a de facto GM? There have been rumors of that for a while, and that it led to friction in the organization. How will whoever comes in handle that dynamic with the head coach?

The Bucks are a team on the rise in the East, they have Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker and Kris Middleton, it’s a team that needs to add the right pieces around them and develop into an elite team in the conference over the next couple of seasons. It will take a deft hand at GM to do that. Zanik strikes me as a guy who can do that, but the Bucks want to cover their options.

Report: Atlanta in negotiations to hire Golden State assistant GM Travis Schlenk as Hawks GM

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The Atlanta Hawks brought in some big names — Chauncey Billups most recently, they thought about Brent Barry, they took a swing at Portland GM Neil Olshey — but in the end, they went with the guy who has paid his dues, comes from a great team culture, and someone who deserves a shot. In short, they made the right play.

The Hawks are in talks to hire Golden State assistant GM Travis Schlenk to take over the big chair in Atlanta, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

The Atlanta Hawks are working on a contract agreement to hire Golden State Warriors executive Travis Schlenk as general manager, league sources told The Vertical. Barring any unforeseen snags, a deal could be completed as soon as Wednesday, league sources told The Vertical….

Schlenk has spent 12 years in the Warriors’ front office, including the past five as assistant GM under Bob Myers.

The position was available because Mike Budenholzer has stepped away from the coach and GM role with the team over a disagreement about direction. Now that direction question falls on Schlenk’s shoulders: Paul Millsap is a free agent this summer, should the Hawks re-sign him to a max deal and likely be a 4-6 seed for the foreseeable future, a good but not great team, or start the rebuild now? What to do about Dwight Howard and the two-years, $47.3 million he is owed? How much do they want to pay Tim Hardaway Jr., he is a restricted free agent?

Schlenk is a quality hire, a guy respected around the league who should make well thought out decisions. But he walks right into a room of tough decisions.

Report: Timberwolves, maybe Spurs have interest in Derrick Rose as a free agent

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The one thing we know about Derrick Rose‘s free agency this summer is that he will not return to the Knicks. After that, things are wide open. He and his agent say winning is what matters, and Rose can play off the ball (despite his iffy jumper), but will he accept less money and a lesser (maybe sixth man) role to be on a winning team?

The teams looking at him this summer seem to have a backup point guard role in mind, at least based on a report from Ian Begley of ESPN.

The Minnesota Timberwolves view Derrick Rose as a potential free-agent target this summer, league sources told ESPN…

Rose, the 2011 MVP, has a strong relationship with Timberwolves president and head coach Tom Thibodeau; he played for five seasons under Thibodeau with the Chicago Bulls…

It is unclear at this point which other outside teams besides the Timberwolves view Rose as a potential free-agent target. Some rival executives believe the San Antonio Spurs may have interest in Rose, depending on how the free-agent market for point guards develops.

In both cases, Rose would be the backup asked to bring scoring off the bench. In Minnesota, Ricky Rubio played the best ball of his career after the All-Star break and Tom Thibodeau will ride that (and Rubio’s quality defense) into next season. However, Kris Dunn has not panned out as a backup and Rose could be a good fit there.

In San Antonio, the point guard spot is more fluid. Tony Parker has a career-threatening injury suffered in the playoffs, and Patty Mills is a free agent. While there are rumors about them chasing Chris Paul, to do that would require a gutting of the roster (moving Pau Gasol and Parker for no money back, plus letting guys such as Mills and Dewayne Dedmon go for nothing) and there would be no money left for a guy like Rose. However, that scenario is unlikely, and if the Spurs bring Mills back Rose could make a good backup.

The question is money. Rose can still get buckets, he averaged 18 a game last season plus 4.4 assists, and he may be due a salary into the eight-figure range. But will a team pay that? And for how many years? San Antonio, if it keeps Gasol and Mills, would basically have the mid-level exception at a little more than $8 million a season. Minnesota may not offer much more. The teams willing to offer more money and a larger role to Rose are likely not ones on a deep playoff track (or maybe making the playoffs at all).

The market for Rose will be interesting, and maybe not as robust as he imagines. It will come down to what his priorities truly are.