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.

Report: Knicks’ Kevin Knox out 2-4 weeks with sprained ankle

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This is a blow — not just for the Knicks on the court, or the development of the team’s new young star, but for Knicks fans. With Kristaps Porzingis out for the foreseeable future, promising rookie Kevin Knox was the reason for hope, the reason to tune in and watch every night.

Now he’s going to be out for a couple of weeks, and maybe a month.

Knox went down after Boston’s Terry Rozier tried to cut Knox off in transition and fouled him. Knox was in a lot of pain and had to be helped off the court.

That sprained ankle will take 2-4 weeks to heal, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Ugh. The good news is this is not more serious and Knox will fully recover. But it’s a setback both for him and the watchability of the Knicks for a few weeks.

Kyrie Irving on if he hadn’t chosen Boston, “New York held a special place for me”

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Now Kyrie Irving is just teasing Knicks fans.

While he was reportedly New York’s top free agent target, Irving announced he will re-sign with Boston when he becomes a free agent next summer. He’s not looking around, not shopping his talents, not talking to the Knicks. That’s why he was greeted with some boos when introduced at Madison Square Garden Saturday night.

However, if Irving were going to shop his talents, New York might have won the sweepstakes, Irving said to Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News.

“Every team was under consideration but obviously New York held a special place for me,” said Irving, who grew up about 15 miles away from MSG in West Orange, NJ. “Just being from Jersey and obviously envisioning myself as a free agent and ultimately taking a meeting and playing for (Knicks coach David Fizdale) and a great young core that they have here.

“Thinking about playing with (Kristaps Porzingis). That was a big thing before I made my decision just to plan on re-signing back with Boston. But yeah, of course, New York was a strong consideration.”

The Celtics are in a position to contend for a title this season and few more going forward (at least), which is what Irving said is the key reason he wants to stay. It doesn’t hurt that Boston can offer him five years, $190 million guaranteed, while the most the Knicks can offer is four years, $139 million. That’s a lot of money to leave on the table.

By the way, the Celtics beat the Knicks 103-101 in MSG.

Chris Paul, Rajon Rondo, Brandon Ingram all ejected for punches-thrown fight in Rockets win

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LOS ANGELES — By the end, LeBron James‘ home opener as a Laker wasn’t about him.

It was about a rare, actual punches thrown NBA fight that saw Houston’s Chris Paul, and Los Angeles’ Rajon Rondo and Brandon Ingram ejected. All likely to face suspensions.

It was also about another Lakers’ loss, 124-115. The Lakers have started the season 0-2 and been out-executed at the end of both games (they scored just 18 fourth-quarter points Saturday).

“I talked to the guys, fights happen in sports, but we’ve got to keep our composure,” Lakers’ coach Luke Walton said. “We somewhat did, but they made a lot of shots down the stretch. (James) Harden made a couple ones, one possession with a rebound on one, we missed a switch on a high pick-and-roll…

“We didn’t execute well enough to win that game down the stretch.”

The Rockets did, bouncing back with some fight after a punchless loss to New Orleans in their opener.

“We had to win a game… ultimately the most important thing is to win the game,” said James Harden, who finished with 36 points on 19 shots. “All the commotion going on, that’s what I tried to go do.”

With it being LeBron’s home debut, the L.A. crowd was fired up from the start. The game was entertaining, back-and-forth and getting physical at points, but nothing out of the ordinary.

That was until in the fourth quarter when Houston’s James Ennis clotheslined Josh Hart who was driving the lane. Ennis got a flagrant one.

“The clothesline, three minutes prior to (the big fight), I saw that. Zero idea how that’s a flagrant one,” Walton said. “(Ennis) clotheslined a guy, he picked him up off his feet and slammed him on his back, and that’s a flagrant one. To me, if I’m a player or a teammate, and that’s a flagrant one, then we can play a little more physical.”

It did get physical after that and a few minutes later is when things spilled over into the fight.

Los Angeles’ Brandon Ingram was particularly frustrated with Harden drawing foul calls (welcome to a big club, Brandon) and after Harden drew another with 4:13 left in the game Ingram let his frustration go and pushed Harden. That was a quick and deserved technical, which there was jawing, which is when Lance Stephenson stepped in to pull Ingram out and protect him from himself (yes, Stephenson was the level head… it was weird to type that).

Usually in an NBA “fight” that’s when things calm down.

Saturday night, that’s when things went crazy.

Chris Paul and Rajon Rondo — two guys who don’t like each going back most of a decade — were jawing after the play when CP3 took his finger and pushed Rondo in the face — and Rondo responded by throwing a punch.

Paul insists Rondo spit on him, which provoked his reaction. Rondo and the Lakers vehemently deny this. (On the video you don’t see Rondo intentionally spitting, but did spittle fly out of his mouth while yelling? Who knows.)

That’s what (Paul) is saying. And as a man, the only thing you can do is react,” Harden said. “Stand up for yourself.”

Once that punch was thrown it was mayhem on the court.

Which is when Ingram came sprinting back into the scene and threw another punch. He was quickly pulled out of the pile, but the damage was done. He was going to be ejected and could face the longest suspension of anyone because he was the third man into the fight (and instigated everything shoving Harden).

Once everything settled down, the ejections came — Ingram, Rondo, and Paul were all gone. Kiki VanDeWeghe, the NBA’s lead disciplinarian, was in the building and saw everything first hand. Expect the suspensions to come down Sunday, before the Rockets play the Clippers on Sunday night.

For the Rockets, it’s a win to build on, although they may have to do that without Paul for a game or two.

For the Lakers there were positives — Lonzo Ball had a strong night and was 4-of-8 from three, and the offense looks good when they run (in the halfcourt, there’s work to do) — but they need more consistent shooting and improved defense to the close games they will find themselves in a lot in the West.

“I’m not disappointed at all,” LeBron said postgame. “I knew we were going to have some early struggles. Nobody said this was going to be easy….

“We got a long way to go to get to the Rockets, to get to a lot of teams in the Western Confererence, they’ve just been together for so long.”

C.J. McCollum breaks Bryn Forbes ankles, drains three, Blazers bench LOVES it

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Bryn Forbes was going to be the third-string point guard for the Spurs, but injuries to Dejounte Murray and Derrick White thrust him into the starting lineup.

Saturday night, C.J. McCollum schooled him. Broke Forbes ankles then drained the three over the top of him.

But the best part of this is the bench reaction.

Damn, that’s cold.

McCollum had 24 and Damian Lillard had 29, and the Blazers beat the Spurs 121-108.