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.”

Report: Cavaliers GM David Griffin ‘the top candidate’ in Magic’s front-office search

David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images
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A week ago, David Griffin was just someone the Magic were researching to run their front office.

It seems the Cavaliers general manager has since moved up in the search.

Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports:

For now, Cleveland Cavaliers GM David Griffin remains the top candidate in the Magic’s search, but Orlando hasn’t yet asked for permission to speak with Griffin, largely because of the Cavaliers’ playoff status, sources said.

This could end a couple ways.

Here’s betting Griffin – who has LeBron James‘ endorsement – leverages the Orlando interest into a bigger offer from Cleveland. Griffin was just too integral to the Cavs’ first championship to discard him.

Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert has shown much more willingness to spend than The Devos Family, which owns the Magic. If this is a bidding war, I’ll take Cleveland. If it isn’t a bidding war, the Cavs have a far more attractive roster than Orlando.

Thunder’s Andre Roberson entering free agency after impactful playoff series

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The Rockets were starting to pull away from the Thunder in Game 5 of their first-round series, and the Houston crowd was looking for a reason to erupt. The Rockets provided one by intentionally fouling Roberson despite holding Oklahoma City without a basket for the previous five minutes. The Thunder wing stepped to the line in the loudening arena and, of course, missed both free throws.

But Roberson didn’t go down quietly.

On the ensuing defensive possession, he picked up James Harden in the backcourt and hounded the Rockets star on the perimeter. Harden passed to Nene, and Roberson doubled the center in the post and stole the ball. Roberson passed to Russell Westbrook then laid out Patrick Beverley with an open-court screen, freeing Westbrook to score.

Of course, that wasn’t enough. Oklahoma City fell in five games, Westbrook’s supporting cast unable to keep up enough with its MVP candidate.

“That’ll definitely be one thing that haunt me, Roberson said of his free-throw shooting against Houston, “and something I’ll work on extremely hard this summer.”

Roberson’s postseason confirmed everything we thought we knew about him: He’s a defensive dynamo, and he can’t shoot.

But understanding Roberson’s skill set is only a small step in evaluating him. Teams are better than ever at exposing perimeter players who can’t shoot, and that makes Roberson’s price point difficult to read as he enters restricted free agency. The Thunder delayed the decision – extending Steven Adams and Victor Oladipo last year while allowing Roberson to complete his rookie-scale contract without an extension – but time is practically up.

For better or worse, it was all there in the playoffs.

Roberson made just 3-of-21 free throws (14%), the worst percentage by anyone with so many attempts in a postseason series (since 1964, as far as Basketball-Reference go back). Here are the worst free-throw percentages in a series since 1964 (minimum: 100 attempts):

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This was hardly out of the norm for Roberson, who made just 42% of his free throws during the regular season.

His postseason 3-point percentage (41%) was way better than his regular-season baseline (25%), but he attempted just 17 3-pointers in 185 playoff minutes. Not only is that a small sample, it speaks to another problem. The Rockets typically left him open, and he was reluctant to shoot. That allowed Houston to defend 5-on-4 elsewhere with only minimal repercussions. Despite playing more than 90% of his minutes with Westbrook, the Thunder still scored worse with Roberson on the court.

So why did Roberson receive such a prominent role in the series?

He’s a defensive stud. Roberson ranks fourth among players who regularly defend opposing guards in defensive real plus-minus:

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Roberson shadowed Harden for too much of the series to gauge on-off splits, but adding regular-season Thunder-Rockets games reveals a clearer (though still limited) picture:

James Harden Roberson on Roberson off
Minutes 320 16
Points per 36 minutes 25.3 51.8
Turnovers per 36 minutes 6.0 0.0
Free-throw attempts per 36 minutes 10.9 22.5
2-point percentage 50.5% 60.0%
3-point percentage 21.1% 60.0%
Effective field-goal percentage 41.9% 75.0%

Harden, arguably the NBA’s best offensive player, was held in relative check with Roberson on the floor. When Roberson sat, Harden went wild.

There has to be a place for a defender like Roberson in this league.

Is it in Oklahoma City?

Roberson was effective in last year’s playoffs as a small-ball big. He cut and crashed the offensive glass. That got harder with two of Adams, Taj Gibson and Enes Kanter occupying the paint. The Thunder maximizing Roberson’s production might mean losing a big man or two. Gibson will be a free agent and said he wants to return. Adams and Kanter are locked into lucrative long-term deals.

When it comes to Roberson, it’s always complicated.

Report: Magic’s search firm inquiring about Larry Bird

AP Photo/Michael Conroy
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Larry Bird resigned as Pacers president.

Not just today, but also in 2012. A year later, he was again running a front office (Indiana’s).

Could he make an even quicker leap back into NBA team presidency – with the Magic?

Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports:

This strikes me as more as Orlando’s search firm trying to prove its usefulness than a viable option.

Whether they’re trying to generate excitement, getting used for leverage or actually serious, the Magic keep getting linked to big-name replacements for the fired Rob HenniganDoc Rivers, David Griffin and now Bird. If the Magic are willing to pay major money for name recognition, they could get plenty of people to at least listen. But I’m unconvinced about that spending.

It’d be a little weird for Bird to inherit Frank Vogel, whom Bird fired as the Pacers’ coach. But Bird did everything he could to show that was more about seeking change than losing faith in Vogel.

Report: Larry Bird stepping down as Pacers president

AP Photo/Darron Cummings
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Larry Bird put his stamp on the Pacers in the last year –  firing Frank Vogel and trading for Jeff Teague and Thaddeus Young to join hand-picked Monta Ellis and Myles Turner as Paul George‘s supporting cast on an up-tempo, offensively dynamic team.

The plan fell flat.

Indiana played at a below-average pace and produced a middling offense. The Pacers got swept by the Cavaliers in the first round of the playoffs.

Now, Indiana’s uncertain future – with Paul George a year from free agency and the Lakers courting – gets even more chaotic.

Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports:

Bird had already resigned once as Pacers president, in 2012. He returned the following year.

Bird’s patience and pain tolerance for the job due to lingering back issues from his playing days has long seemed to waver. I wouldn’t write him off for good.

Indiana promoted Kevin Pritchard in 2012, when Bird previously stepped down. Pritchard previously worked as the Trail Blazers’ general manager, and he’s a qualified replacement.

The work begins immediately with a decision on George. If he doesn’t make an All-NBA team, the Pacers won’t gain as much financial advantage in his contract offer. That could open the door to a trade and rebuilding around Turner — or making a last-ditch push to convince George he can win in Indiana.