Deron Williams

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.

LeBron James calls Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson ‘probably the two greatest shooters that we’ve probably ever seen’

CLEVELAND, OH - JUNE 16:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers shakes hands with Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors after the Warriors defeated the Cavs 105 to 97 to win Game Six of the 2015 NBA Finals at Quicken Loans Arena on June 16, 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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INDEPENDENCE, Ohio (AP) — LeBron James has already felt the stinging spray from the Splash Brothers in the NBA Finals.

When league MVP Stephen Curry and trigger-happy Golden State teammate Klay Thompson are knocking down 3-pointers from 30 feet, swishing contested jumpers over taller players and destroying defenses designed to stop them, the only option is pray they miss.

“Some of those shots,” James said. “There’s nothing you can do about it.”

As the Cavaliers, considerably healthier than they were a year ago, prepare to take on the 73-win Warriors in the finals again, they know their chances of ending Cleveland’s 52-year championship drought hinge on how well they defend Curry, Thompson & Co.

Stopping the Warriors is impossible. Slowing them isn’t.

“They shoot the ball extremely well,” James said before the team left for California and Game 1 on Thursday. “Klay and Steph are probably the two greatest shooters that we’ve probably ever seen. Better offense beats great defense any day. So we have to be able to do other things to stop them, but it’s hard to contain them.

“We all know that. The whole league knows that. Our team knows that. But we have a game plan and we have to follow it and be true to it.”

Although they won’t admit it publicly, the Cavs have been eyeing a rematch with the Warriors since losing to them in six games last year.

James back then was virtually on his own after Kevin Love separated his left shoulder in the first round and Kyrie Irving shattered his left kneecap in Game 1 of the finals. James did everything possible, averaging 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists – an unprecedented finals stat line – but it wasn’t enough. The Warriors had too much ball movement, athleticism and depth.

While fans, the league office and TV executives clamored for a Curry-James rematch, the Cavs claim they were ready for any opponent.

“It didn’t matter,” said James, appearing in his sixth straight finals. “Like Coach (Tyronn) Lue said, we’re just waiting on the winner. We’re fortunate to be here and we look forward to the challenge. It’s an unbelievable team that we’re going against. Hats off.”

This time around, the Cavs have comparable talent.

That won’t matter, though, if they don’t defend.

Curry appears back to normal after dealing with a knee injury earlier in the postseason, and Thompson made a postseason-record 11 3s and scored 41 in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals. The Warriors erased a 3-1 deficit to end Oklahoma City’s season and set up Golden State vs. Cleveland, the sequel.

Irving will likely be matched up with Curry. But it won’t fall solely on him to check the game’s purest shooter.

J.R. Smith has been Cleveland’s best defender all season, and at 6-foot-6, his size could give Curry (generously listed as 6-3) some trouble. Matthew Dellavedova tenaciously hounded Curry in last year’s finals until he exhausted himself and wound up hospitalized. James, too, will guard Curry in certain situations.

One of Cleveland’s primary challenges will be the way it deals with Golden State’s pick and rolls designed to get Curry mismatches. Thunder center Serge Ibaka found himself isolated on Curry late in Monday’s Game 7 and committed a costly foul trying to block a 3.

The Warriors expose weaknesses.

“It’s tough,” Lue said of combating Golden State’s screens. “It’s one of two things: either you can switch and have a big (man) on Curry and have him take the shots over your big or you can double-team Steph and throw it back to Draymond (Green), who’s probably the best playmaker at that position in the league and now you have a four-on-three or a three-on-two. So you got to pick your poison.”

Golden State shot its way back against Oklahoma City, draining a league record 90 3-pointers to complete a comeback Lue feels only heightens the aura around these modern-day Western gunslingers.

The Cavs learned in last year’s finals they can’t leave Curry and Thompson for a millisecond.

“You always have to have your antennas up,” Lue said. “You can never relax because they’re always moving. We got to be sharp and stick to our principles and know what we’re supposed to do.”

The Cavs will study scouting reports and break down film to be ready.

And, even then, James knows that may not be enough.

“You still gotta try to stop them,” he said. “And that’s a tall task.”

Andre Iguodala on Kevin Durant: ‘It must be fun playing with a guy like that… Unless I’m not playing with him’

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 30:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder drives with the ball against Andre Iguodala #9 of the Golden State Warriors in Game Seven of the Western Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at ORACLE Arena on May 30, 2016 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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The 76ers’ season ended years ago, so Joel Embiid could get a head start on recruiting Kevin Durant.

The Warriors did most of their recruiting on the court, making Durant’s final memory of the Thunder’s season three straight losses. That certainly opens the door for Durant leaving Oklahoma City more than an NBA Finals berth would have.

Some flattery wouldn’t hurt, either – even as Golden State prepares to face the Cavaliers in the Finals.

Andre Iguodala, via Jimmy Durkin of The Mercury News:

“He made some really tough shots, which is what I expected,” Iguodala said of Durant. “He’s a fighter and competitor and fought to the end. It must be fun playing with a guy like that.”

Iguodala quickly added a follow-up: “Unless I’m not playing with him.”

I appreciate Iguodala’s humor about what could be a difficult situation. The Warriors went a record 73-9 and they’re chasing their second straight title – and rumors persist about breaking up the team to chase Durant this summer. That could disrupt chemistry and focus.

But the players in the crosshairs if Golden State needs to trim salary – namely Iguodala, Andrew Bogut, Harrison Barnes and Festus Ezeli – have at least outwardly downplayed the potential distraction. The results also indicate the players aren’t causing major problems behind the scenes, either.

I’m sure the Warriors would love to keep all four and sign Durant, but the salary cap makes that unfeasible. Iguodala has done so much for this team –  including winning Finals MVP, playing standout defense on Durant in these conference finals. But he also plays Durant’s position and is 32, two factors that make him more expendable.

Iguodala surely knows all that, but he’s clearly taking it in stride and hoping for the best-case scenario – that Durant signs with the Warriors and Iguodala is one of the players who stays to play with the super team.

Why is Stephen Curry’s toughness questioned? Warriors coach Steve Kerr: ‘Because he looks like he’s 12’

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 30:  Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors speaks to members of the media following their 96-88 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game Seven of the Western Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at ORACLE Arena on May 30, 2016 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) Fresh charcoal gray NBA Finals cap on backward and wearing a wide grin, Stephen Curry summed up his wild, up-and-down postseason so far and reminded everybody he’s not close to done.

The MVP’s got his groove back, all right – looking healthy again at last after dealing with a troublesome ankle, right knee sprain that sidelined him and even a puffy elbow from an awkward dive into the stands.

“Now we’re four wins away from our goal, and that’s a pretty special accomplishment,” Curry said Monday night after his Golden State Warriors wrapped up the Western Conference finals by beating the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 7.

Curry is taking the 73-win Warriors back to the NBA Finals with a shot at a second straight championship, his plan from the get go.

Golden State’s ultimate goal of a repeat title has been in the works since Day 1, even if the Warriors’ chances of digging out of a big hole against Oklahoma City looked dire just last week. His body beat up, Curry had no choice but to watch fellow Splash Brother Klay Thompson and others carry the Warriors for much of this postseason run while he worked his way back.

It’s his time again.

Just as he did after the Warriors won Game 5 to stave off elimination, Curry chanted through Oracle Arena, “We ain’t going home!” as Golden State became just the 10th team to rally from a 3-1 deficit to win a postseason series with Monday night’s 96-88 Game 7 victory.

Curry and his teammates earned a day off Tuesday before preparations begin in earnest Wednesday for a Finals rematch against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, who lost last season’s title to Golden State in six games.

For Curry, there’s just one more step to take to cap a remarkable, record-setting season.

The 28-year-old global superstar earned the first unanimous MVP award in league history, while also becoming the first player not only to make 300 3-pointers in a season but also 400 – he finished with 402 – before a series of injuries slowed him when it mattered most.

There was the injured ankle in the first-round Houston series, then he returned only to slip on a wet spot in Game 4 against the Rockets and sprained his right knee. He made a dive into the Oracle Arena stands against the Thunder and gave himself a puffy elbow, and for a few games Curry hardly looked comfortable with his typically breezy ballhandling and shoot-from-anywhere rhythm.

Until he did again.

His teammates have come to expect nothing less, even when Curry’s body is hurting and speculation swirls about whether he is playing somewhere around 70 percent. He has learned to block out the chatter along the way, knowing that just comes with being the best.

“That’s really one thing that I admire about him. He’s a person that’s never going to change for anybody. He hasn’t changed to try to prove anything,” said 2015 Finals MVP Andre Iguodala. “He just stayed true to himself.”

Curry scored 36 points in the deciding game while making seven 3-pointers and dishing out eight assists. He wound up with 32 3s against the Thunder, the most ever in a seven-game postseason series.

“I feel joy, for sure,” he said. “This is an unbelievable accomplishment, to go back to back to the Finals and continue this journey. So I’m kind of just taking in the moment and enjoying it with my teammates.”

And for anybody still questioning his toughness, Coach of the Year Steve Kerr brushes such things aside with another timely joke: “Because he looks like he’s 12.”

Perhaps it’s easy to forget how Curry led the Warriors to an NBA-record 24-0 start and a record 73-9 finish.

“You have an MVP, two-time, and what he contributes every single night and what he means on the floor for them, you just have to have your antenna up even more,” Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving said.

Four more wins, that’s all Curry cares about right now. However they come.

“The one thing with Steph is he understands that with all these accolades, MVPs, commercials, with all that comes great responsibility to his team, to the organization, the fans. He gets that,” Kerr said. “He understands that if you play poorly, you’re going to get blamed if you’re the star. He’s had a rough playoff go because of the injuries. I think he finally felt right physically the last couple games. And this is who he is. Having a clutch performance in a Game 7. That’s Steph Curry.”

AP Sports Writer Tom Withers in Cleveland contributed to this report.

Report: Kevin Durant’s agent told Celtics what players Durant would want to join him in Boston

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The Celtics believe they’ll get a meeting with Kevin Durant summer.

What gives them that idea?

Maybe preliminary conversations with the Thunder star’s agent.

Butch Stearns of WEEI:

I have this on pretty good authority. The Celtics have sat with his agent and other representatives of Durant. The Celtics do know — I don’t know who it is — but they do know who he would prefer to be brought here in a LeBron-Chris BoshDwyane Wade-like way. Because that’s how it works in the NBA. You need to know who the guy or guys that that guy wants, which would be a factor.

Now, I don’t know if Durant’s told them that. But the Celtics know. They know. They’ve been told what group of guys he would want to come here.

It’d be quite logical for Durant to send this request through backchannels. It doesn’t mean he’ll sign with the Celtics even if they add his desired future teammates. How many teams received the same list of players from Durant’s camp? But it gives him a potentially more appealing option.

Durant is so valuable, teams will jump through hoops just to increase their chance of signing him. He’s well within his rights to wield that power to increase the likelihood he finds the ideal spot. The more good options, the better chance he has of picking a great one.

The Celtics have plenty of intriguing assets – the Nos. 3, 16 and 23 picks this year, swap rights on the Nets’ 2017 first-rounder, the Nets’ 2018 first-rounder, a loosely protected Grizzlies’ first rounder and potentially enough cap space to sign two max free agents this summer (if they waive the unguaranteed Amir Johnson and Jonas Jerebko and renounced all their free agents). But those assets just represent theoretical improvement to Durant, who wants to win now. Boston must prove it can flip the picks and cap space for capable veterans – more specifically, the capable veterans Durant wants to play with.

With that ammo, the Celtics could land plenty of players. If it means getting Durant, Boston should even offer more in a trade than the incoming player would be worth in a vacuum.

The Celtics aren’t devoid of winning players. They have an All-Star in Isaiah Thomas, who’s recruiting Durant. They just don’t have enough – not yet.

But it’s possible to see a route that leads to a quick roster upgrade and Durant signing. A longshot? Probably. But having a legitimate plan at this point would put Boston ahead of several other Durant’s suitors.

Of course, the Warriors loom, and I doubt they got this list. They’re already so good. The Celtics’ challenge is becoming more appealing than Golden State and Oklahoma City, and Boston is working from behind. But at least the Celtics know what Durant wants them working on, and they might have the assets to complete his tasks.