Deron Williams returns, chooses to come off the bench in Nets’ blowout win over Knicks

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NEW YORK — The last time the Nets faced the Knicks, they were without Deron Williams and Paul Pierce due to injury, and a fully healthy New York squad thumped Brooklyn back on Dec. 5 at Barclays by a 30-point margin.

A little more than a month later, things have completely changed for both sides.

The Nets have been on a roll since the calendar turned to 2014, and they got Williams back in time to blowout the Knicks 103-80 in a Monday matinee at Madison Square Garden to improve to 7-1 in the new year.

Not that they needed him.

Brooklyn has been using excellent ball movement and riding Joe Johnson during this recent stretch, whose big early scoring performances have gotten the Nets out to some very fast starts. And the team has been stronger defensively with Shaun Livingston and Alan Anderson at the guard spots, so Williams kept continuity, and made the easy decision to come off the bench.

“It was my idea,” he said afterward. “Just because we had been playing so well with that lineup, why shake things up? It doesn’t matter if I come off the bench, start, whatever. The way [Joe Johnson] has been playing in first quarters, first halves, I don’t want to disrupt that.”

Johnson had 12 points on 5-of-8 shooting in the game’s first 12 minutes, and the Nets had opened up an 11-point lead by the time the first quarter was finished.

Paul Pierce knows a thing or two about going from a starting to a reserve role, having had to deal with that for the first time in his career with the Nets earlier this season. It was tough on Pierce at the time, but he believes that while it will be an adjustment for Williams if it continues, he’s more than capable of figuring it out.

“I haven’t come off the bench my whole career until recently, but I think it’s a mental adjustment,” Pierce said. “It’s just something you’ve got to figure out, and it’s totally different when you’ve been playing your whole life in the starting lineup. You have to have a different mental approach, you have to be ready as soon as you come in — it’s just a different type of preparation, I think. He’s a smart player, he understands the game, and he can figure it out, whether he continues to come off the bench or until he returns to the starting lineup.”

While the Nets have gotten healthy (minus Brook Lopez, of course, who is expected to be out the rest of the season with a foot fracture), they’ve also begun to come together as a team. Andray Blatche, who played well when the game was out of hand for the second straight contest and finished with 19 points and 12 rebounds, says the defense is what’s made the difference.

“It’s our effort on defense and we’re trusting one another on defense,” Blatche said. “We’re talking, and things are working out for us. We’re hanging our hat on defense first.”

Kevin Garnett echoed those remarks, and credited Jason Kidd for getting his message to the team across in terms of what the expectations are in defensive situations.

“We’re not guessing anymore,” Garnett said.

On the Knicks side, they’re missing two key rotation big men in Kenyon Martin and Amar’e Stoudemire, but the problems seem to run deeper than simply available personnel. The defense is a joke at times, and Carmelo Anthony rarely gets any consistent help offensively beyond high-volume, low-percentage shooting from his teammates.

The Knicks and the Nets traded plenty of jabs through the media following the offseason acquisitions of Pierce and Garnett, but Brooklyn wouldn’t place any special emphasis on this victory afterward. Pierce was among those exchanging the playful remarks, but at this point he’s focused on how Williams’ return can help impact this team as it tries to live up to those lofty preseason expectations.

“We need Deron,” he said. “No matter how we’ve been playing, at the end of the day if we’re going to make some noise here in the East, we need what he’s able to do.”

“I know there was a lot of talk in the preseason about the rivalry, you know, the inner-city battle,” Pierce said. “But us as a team, at this point we’re looking at the big picture. We’re looking at how we’re going to develop, how we’re going to get better and how we’re going to continue to move up in the East.”

How do you like “The Process” now? Sixers eliminate Heat, advance to second round

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It felt inevitable.

Not “The Process” from the start. There were some severe downs before the ups.

Not this first playoff series against Miami from the start, because it felt even… until Game 3 when Joel Embiid returned in his mask and tipped the scales.

No, it was Game 5’s result felt inevitable as it unfolded. Not because Philadelphia won the previous game in Miami and could close it out at home. Not because the Sixers have the two biggest talents in the series in Ben Simmons and Embiid.

Rather, Game 5 felt inevitable because the Sixers got better looks all night long. They got them with ball movement, with player movement that created mismatches or clean jumpers. It was tied 46-46 at the half because Philadelphia just missing its good looks while the Heat were struggling with hands in their face all night. Philadelphia shot 38.1 percent in the first half overall and were 2-of-12 from three.

In the third quarter, it all changed.

Philadelphia went on an early 9-0 run, shot 50 percent as a team for the quarter, all while continuing to play defense and get stops. The Sixers won the third 34-20 and held on through Miami rallies in the fourth to take the game comfortably, 104-91.

With the win, Philadelphia wins the series 4-1 and advances to the second round, where they will face either Boston or Milwaukee (Boston leads the series 3-2).

They did it behind 27 from J.J. Redick, who knocked down five threes. Embiid had 19 points and 12 rebounds, Simmons had 14 points, 10 rebounds, and six assists. However, it was the defense that held the Miami to 38.6 percent shooting overall and 16-of-31 from three within eight feet of the basket that won the game for Philly.

This young Sixers team learned lessons in this first round, and maybe the biggest was how to adapt the physicality of the playoffs, and keeping your cool while things don’t go your way.

“I thought we withstood the physicality of the Heat,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said. “They’re a great organization. They came to mean it, we knew they wouldn’t go away easily, and we had to have that physical element to match.”

They matched that physicality, but what they had was talent that could step up.

They also savored the moment. Midway through the fourth, up comfortably and still knocking down shots, the young Sixers were reveling in the deafening crowd in the Wells Fargo Center. Philadelphia was reveling in success after years of struggling through the process — the players and fans wanted to start that party midway through the fourth.

However, Heat have no chill and no quit in them, they went on a 10-0 in the fourth quarter, not-so-coincidentally after Sixers fans started chanting, “We want Boston!”

But when it mattered the Heat couldn’t get stops — the Sixers talent showed through. Redick hit threes. Embiid owned the paint. Simmons did a little bit of everything.

It was a moment of revelry in Philadelphia. One years in the making — and maybe the first in many years of future celebrations on that court.

Sixers players douse Brett Brown, present him with bell after closing Heat (VIDEO)

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The Philadelphia 76ers are moving on. Let’s just try to process that for a moment.

After beating the Miami Heat on Tuesday night, 104-91, this iteration of the Sixers experienced their first playoff series win together. It was also the first series win for coach Brett Brown as the man in charge of an NBA team.

As such, players gathered in the locker room after the win to hear Brown speak about the win, and about how the team had more to give and to learn as they moved forward together in the playoffs.

When Brown concluded his speech, he tried to hand off the victory bell to JJ Redick. As soon as Redick received it, he bestowed the honor of the bell right back upon Brown.

That’s when teammates showered Brown with whatever they had nearby, and Brown rung the bell.

Man, what a moment.

Marcus Smart returns, helps Celtics win Game 5 over Bucks

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Marcus Smart returned to the Boston Celtics after suffering a thumb injury earlier in the year, and boy was it just in time.

The Celtics guard came off the bench, doing what he does best: attacking opposing guards, grabbing rebounds, and making hustle plays for his squad. Smart thoroughly annoyed the Milwaukee Bucks, and as Giannis Antetokounmpo failed to make a push in the second half (and as Khris Middleton‘s shooting slowly deteriorated) it was Boston who came out with a win in Game 5, 92-87.

Milwaukee’s offense failed to show up early. According to NBA TV, it was the second-lowest halftime total for the Bucks this season, and the away team scored just 37 points at the break. Milwaukee struggled mightily as a team, shooting just 21 percent from 3-point range. Despite the issues, both Antetokounmpo and Middleton had 11 points by half.

Boston’s attack was balanced, with nine players scoring in the first half but none reaching double figures. Smart was effective off the bench, playing 12 minutes in the first half. Smart’s presence was felt elsewhere on the floor as well; in those minutes he racked up two blocks, two rebounds, and two assists.

The Celtics stalled to start the third quarter, at times going several minutes between baskets. The intensity level was still high, particularly during one tussle with 9:33 left in the third. Eric Bledsoe and Terry Rozier got into a bumping match on the baseline away from the ball, resulting in one player getting pushed into an official. Bledsoe earned a Flagrant 1 for his efforts, and Rozier was assessed a technical.

Milwaukee began to battle back on surprising baskets by Shabazz Muhammad. The former Minnesota Timberwolves wing dropped two 3-pointers to help the Bucks make a run at the Celtics all the way into the fourth quarter.

The critical play of the game came with 80 seconds left. With the shot clock winding down, Al Horford was allowed by officials to shoot a long jumper. The refereeing crew didn’t blow the whistle, and Boston took a second possession after a backtip.

Then, with 28 seconds left as the Bucks were trying to steal or foul the Celtics, came the play Boston fans had been waiting for from Smart. At first it appeared Milwaukee had shot at a turnover as they hustled Smart to the floor on a trap. Thinking quickly, Smart leapt on the lost ball, flipped over, and sent a pass to a wide open Horford for the basket, all but sealing the game.

Milwaukee tried to play the foul game in the final minute or so, but weren’t able to come up with a win. Antetokounmpo finished with just 16 points and Middleton with 23. Horford led the Celtics with 22 points, 14 rebounds, and three assists.

Boston now leads the series, 3-2, as they head back to Milwaukee for Game 6 on Thursday.

Meek Mill gets out of jail, takes helicopter to 76ers-Heat, rings bell pregame

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Philadelphia 76ers big man Joel Embiid had been one of the most notable NBA players leading the charge for the #FreeMeekMill movement. The rapper Meek Mill, a Philadelphia native and Sixers fan, has been incarcerated for violating the terms of his probation multiple times.

At the heart of the movement to free Meek Mill is the idea of comparative justice, that he has been unfairly targeted because of his race as an absorber of punishment from the penal system despite it being a decade since he committed his crime. People from Embiid to New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft have made their voices heard on the subject.

Today, Meek Mill was released from prison and was sent a special gift: the opportunity to fly via helicopter, provided by 76ers minority owner Michael Rubin, to Game 5 between the Sixers and Miami Heat.

When he arrived at the game, the rapper rung the ceremonial bell before tip-off.

Not a couple of hours fresh out of the joint.