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.

Paul Millsap and Al Horford: Hawks wouldn’t have gunned for 3-point record like Cavaliers did

Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) is fouled by Atlanta Hawks center Al Horford (15) in the second half during Game 2 of a second-round NBA basketball playoff series, Wednesday, May 4, 2016, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
AP Photo/Tony Dejak
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The Cavaliers are making 3-pointers at a blistering pace.

Cleveland even set a record for any NBA game with 25 3-pointers in its Game 2 win over the Hawks. To get there, the Cavs attempted 11 3s in a fourth quarter they entered up 36.

Did that disrespect Atlanta?

Paul Millsap, via Chris Haynes of Cleveland.com:

“It’s a certain way of being a professional,” the Hawks’ Paul Millsap said to cleveland.com. “I’m not mad about it, but just being professionals man. If that’s how you want to approach it, that’s how you approach it. I think our team and our organization has class and I don’t think we would have continued to do that, but other organizations do other things so what can you do about it?”

Al Horford, via Haynes:

“We probably wouldn’t do anything like that [if we were in that position],” he told cleveland.com. “…It’s hard to say, but I would say no.”

We can’t know what the Hawks would do, because they’ve never made more than 20 3-pointers in a game. I’d guess they’d hunt the record if it were within their grasp in an uncompetitive game, but that’s just a guess. Millsap and Horford are guessing, too.

What were the Cavs supposed to do? Just take shot-clock violations? Of course not. As long as they have to shoot anyway, there’s no reason not to take 3s. Even if they didn’t have to shoot, it would’ve been fine to take 3s. Atlanta had one solution: Defend the arc better.

If the Hawks want to tell themselves they should be offended in order to motivate themselves for Game 3, good for them. Just don’t confuse that with Cleveland doing anything offensive.

Phil Jackson goes on vacation, reportedly puts Knicks’ coaching search on hold

New York Knicks president Phil Jackson speaks to reporters during a news conference in Greenburgh, N.Y., Monday, Feb. 8, 2016. Derek Fisher was fired as New York Knicks coach Monday, with his team having lost five straight and nine of 10 to fall well back in the Eastern Conference playoff race. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
AP Photo/Seth Wenig
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Phil Jackson has stumped for Kurt Rambis, interviewed David Blatt, talked with Luke Walton and ignored Carmelo Anthony.

It must be exhausting.

So, it appears the Knicks president took off on a tour the American West:

No big deal. Everyone has cell phones. Jackson can still run the coaching search from afar.

Except….

Ian Begley of ESPN:

Jackson is on vacation at the moment. The interesting thing here is that league sources say that some involved in the Knicks’ coaching search have been informed that Phil is away at the moment, meaning the search is on hold.

This matters only if Jackson isn’t just going to hire Rambis anyway. But if the Knicks are interested in exploring candidates other teams – Rockets, Pacers and Kings – might want, Jackson is missing a valuable opportunity.

Reminder: The Knicks are paying him $12 million per year – money that could have lured someone with a record of front-office success or even just the commitment to delay a vacation until after hiring a coach.

Three Things to Watch in Heat/Raptors Game 2: Will Kyle Lowry’s jump shot return?

TORONTO, ON - MAY 03:  Kyle Lowry #7 of the Toronto Raptors attempts to help DeMar DeRozan #10 up off the floor late in the second half of Game One of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Miami Heat during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at the Air Canada Centre on May 3, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  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 Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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The first game went to overtime, and we should see a desperate Raptors team in Game 2, one that knows it can’t go down 2-0 and win this series. Here are three things to watch.

1) Did Kyle Lowry’s late-night shooting work pay off? To put it bluntly (as I did in the series preview): If Lowry isn’t playing at an All-Star level the Raptors are not winning this series. He was 3-of-13 shooting in Game 1. It wasn’t just that game, and it wasn’t just the first playoff series with George Hill draped on him, Lowry was not shooting well as the campaign wound down — his 57.8 true shooting percentage for the season dropped to 51.1 (below the league average) in April. That has to change fast.

It wasn’t just Lowry, however, a lot of Raptors players were missing wide open looks — as a team they were 4-of-17 on uncontested threes. Those shots need to fall.

2) Can Toronto defenders stay in front of Goran Dragic? The Miami point guard has felt more and more comfortable in recent months — since the All-Star break when Miami was pushed to small ball — and the Raptors did nothing to make him feel uncomfortable. Well, one Heat player did, Hassan Whiteside (Dragic was 3-of-9 finishing in the paint in Game 1), but if he keeps getting into the paint at will — both in secondary transition actions and in the half court — breaking down the Raptor defense this is going to be a rough series in Toronto. I expect a lot more effort and a better performance from the Raptors defensively, with Dragic as a focal point.

3) “We need more Jonas Valanciunas” — the Raptors must attack Hassan Whiteside and draw some fouls. Whiteside intimidated a lot of Raptors shooters in Game 1 — not only did Raptors guard struggle to finish inside, but they also pulled up and didn’t take shots in the paint at times just to avoid Whiteside. However, Toronto’s Valanciunas has the size advantage inside and put it to good use with 24 points, 14 rebounds, and three blocks. The Raptors need to feed him early and try to get Whiteside in foul trouble — that also means attacking guards like DeMar DeRozan can’t pull up, he has to risk some blocked shots to go into the body of Whiteside and draw fouls. If Whiteside is allowed to dominate the paint, the Heat will take the series, the Raptors need to go at him.

Cavaliers’ 3-point shooting was excellent. THEN, they made 25 in a game

Cleveland Cavaliers guard J.R. Smith (5) reacts after the Cavaliers beat the Atlanta Hawks 123-98 in Game 2 of a second-round NBA basketball playoff series, Wednesday, May 4, 2016, in Cleveland. Smith hit seven 3-pointers in the game. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
AP Photo/Tony Dejak
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The Cavaliers set a record for 3-pointers in a team’s first six playoff games on this Kyrie Irving shot:

Did you notice anything strange about that clip?

It came in Game 1 against the Hawks – Cleveland’s fifth playoff game.

That’s right, the Cavs needed just five games to set a record for 3s through six playoff games. Then, they piled on 25 3-pointers – a record for any NBA game – in their Game 2 win over Atlanta on Wednesday.

Cleveland’s 97 3-pointers through six postseason games absolutely crushes the previous record:

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The difference between the Cavs and second place equals difference between second and 88th.

In fact, Cleveland has already demolished the record for 3s through EIGHT playoff games (previously 90 by the 2014-15 Hawks). Again, the Cavaliers have played just six games this postseason.

Where is all this outside output coming from? The key long-distance shot makers:

Add it all up, and the Cavs are making 16.2 3-pointers per game – which would easily set a playoff record:

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Cleveland could make no 3-pointers in its next two games – and still rank first for 3s per game in a postseason.

Not that the Cavs appear likely to go cold from distance anytime soon.

Their stars generate open looks and make 3s themselves. Smith is an unrepentant gunner, and he’s feeling it.

These are the Cavaliers as scary as they get.