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.”

Deron Williams and Jerry Sloan finally buried the hatchet

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Deron Williams or Chris Paul? That was the conversation in the NBA just a decade ago, a conversation that now seems practically ridiculous. I never personally thought it was very close between the two, being an adamant Paul supporter. Now, CP3 is with the Houston Rockets and Williams is out of the league, despite Paul being just 200 days younger than the former Utah Jazz star (but having played more games).

Williams was part of a two-man attack, along with Carlos Boozer, that helped fuel the Jazz during the first decade of this century as they churned through the Western Conference. But Williams played just five-and-a-half seasons in Salt Lake City, traded after a blow-up with former Jazz coach Jerry Sloan.

Things were unsteady between the two during the 2010-11 season, and Sloan famously decided to retire after a game in February of 2011 in which the Jazz lost to the Chicago Bulls. During halftime of that game, there was a disagreement between Sloan and Williams that apparently pushed the legendary head coach to his tipping point.

Sloan retired and Williams was traded on February 23rd.

Now, it appears that the two have at least made amends. In a story of appearing on UtahJazz.com, Williams recently went to Sloan’s house to talk about the divide between the two and what happened some seven years ago.

Via UtahJazz.com:

“He doesn’t forget a lot of things, instances where I pissed him off, things I did to upset him,” Williams said. “He definitely told me about that—and rightfully so. He was great about some other things. It was kind of typical Coach Sloan, really. If you know him, he’s never been one to shy away from telling you the truth and how he feels.”

“Eventually, I think Jerry came around,” [Jazz CEO Greg] Miller said. “He never really said, ‘Let’s put it behind us’ or anything, but maybe in Sloan speak he did.”

“Two strong men said what they needed to say, shook hands and are now moving forward,” [Jazz president Steve] Starks said.

Sloan, 76, is living with Parkinson’s and reportedly not in the best of health. It’s good to hear that Williams was remorseful about how he acted, and that the two great sportsmen were able to come together and at least see each other’s point of view as a sort of armistice.

Masai Ujiri on Kawhi Leonard: ‘He is happy. There is no maintenance with him’

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No doubt there are big expectations for the Toronto Raptors this year after trading franchise cornerstone DeMar DeRozan for disgruntled San Antonio Spurs star Kawhi Leonard. Ever an enigma (and coming off of one of the worst-managed exits from a team in recent memory) Leonard has fans in Ontario biting their nails about whether he will return healthy this season, and happy for the next.

According to Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri, Leonard is giving them every indication that he is ready to go heading into the 2018-19 NBA season. Speaking to the media on Tuesday, Ujiri said that Leonard is happy.

Via Sportsnet:

“He is happy. From what everybody has told me he is healthy. He spends a lot of time with our coaches,” said Ujiri. “He went to L.A. to meet our guys out there. He will be here shortly.”

“He is just quiet … that’s his nature. We can’t all be the same kind of people. But he is as engaging as he would want to be and he’s very interesting. There is no maintenance with him. There’s nothing. It’s remarkable … His (focus) is on basketball which is what you want. He is a basketball junkie … once you just start to talk about basketball his eyes change.”

We have heard rumors that Leonard has purchased a home in Toronto instead of merely renting. We’ve also seen photos of Leonard happy and working out with players like Kobe Bryant, nearly even smiling. And Ujiri is doing his part here, trying to ease any sentiment around Leonard.

The PR machine is in sixth gear in Toronto, but you can’t really blame them. It’s the first good public relations move we’ve seen from Leonard’s enclave in more than a year, and it helps bolster the team if things go south.

Do I believe anything that is reported about Leonard anymore? No. Not after last season. Unfortunately, the issue with Leonard remains the fact that we will have to simply sit to wait and see what he chooses to do next year.

Raptors fans, who are dedicated and passionate, should be hoping that they finally make a Finals run this year. Just in case.

Report: 76ers rookie Zhaire Smith expected to return around Christmas

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76ers first-rounder Zhaire Smith suffered a Jones fracture in his left foot last month, leaving plenty of uncertainty about when he’d return.

Keith Pompey of The Inquirer:

The 76ers expect injured rookie Zhaire Smith to be available to play in a game around Christmas, league sources say.

A rookie on a team with legitimate aspirations of deep-playoff advancement, Smith was already unlikely to crack Philadelphia’s rotation this season. All this lost developmental time makes it even less likely.

But the sooner Smith returns, the better for him and Philadelphia. The No. 16 pick impresses with his athleticism and motor, but he needs time to develop his perimeter skills.

Kevin Love launches “Love Fund” to bring more focus to mental health issues

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The NBA is not shying away from the issue of the mental health of its players.

In the wake of All-Stars DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love coming forward about their mental health challenges, the league and the players’ union combined to tell players to speak out on the issue and take advantage of the services offered.

Kevin Love is doing more than just that, he has formed the Kevin Love Fund to help change the stigma around mental health issues. The fund has partners such as Headspace, with the focus being on prioritizing mental health awareness. He went on the Today Show on NBC to talk about it.

Love has become a leader and spokesman around the issue. Love came forward near the end of last season to talk about his battles with anxiety and depression. That opened the door for others around the NBA to step forward as well, such as Kelly Oubre and Paul Pierce.