Incredible 35-point performance from Deron Williams leads Nets to overtime Game 4 win over Hawks

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NEW YORK — Deron Williams had scored five total points on 2-of-15 shooting over the last two games of Brooklyn’s first-round playoff series against the Hawks, and was benched for the entire fourth quarter of Saturday’s Game 3, which the Nets won more due to an uncharacteristically lackluster Atlanta performance than because of anything else.

But Williams figuratively rose from the dead on Monday, and turned in an incredible performance to lead his team to a 120-115 overtime victory which evened the best-of-seven series at two games apiece.

“It’s very satisfying,” Nets head coach Lionel Hollins said of Williams afterward. “The kid has overcome a lot of adversity, with the injuries and with the negativity around his name. For him to come out showed a lot of character to put on a performance like that, especially when we needed it. Because without that performance, I don’t know if we get out of here with a win. I’ll take it, and I’m excited about it.”

Williams finished with 35 points, five rebounds, seven assists and three steals, and scored 16 in the fourth quarter while making some incredibly difficult shots. He had been buried by the media in recent days, and Hollins, unprompted, jumped to his defense at Sunday’s practice.

“I’m disappointed in how everybody’s coming down on Deron and trying to treat him like he’s a pariah,” Hollins told reporters. “Deron’s a good person, he’s a good player. Now, is he on the level that you guys think he should be? That’s your fault for thinking that somebody should be something.”

“No player is the same as he was four years ago,” Hollins continued. “All I’m saying is the guy has played well and somebody picks out that he has two points. So what? He played well. It’s not just about the scoring. There’s a lot of teams that would be better because they have some guys who score a lot of points. But it’s about winning, it’s about doing the right things for the team. And I’ll defend Deron till the end on that and all my players to the end.”

On this night, no defense of Deron was needed. He started off hot with 11 first-quarter points, and set the tone early for his teammates by playing with a high level of aggressiveness. The Hawks were largely unfazed, however, and went on a run in the second quarter to erase an eight-point deficit and take a six-point lead into the halftime intermission.

One particular play stood out — a fast break opportunity where Atlanta pushed the ball, and zipped three quick passes around to create a wide open corner three for Mike Scott, which he calmly knocked down. These were the Hawks that won 60 games during the regular season, and it appeared as though they might have returned in time to take control of the series.

Atlanta carried its strong play through the third, where it pushed the lead to as many as 12 points. The Hawks dominated the period by knocking down 13 of their 20 shot attempts, and hitting the offensive glass hard to rebound all but two of their misses.

But Williams opened the fourth quarter by hitting back-to-back threes and a step-back jumper to cut the lead to three, while singlehandedly bringing his team back. He made a lot of tough shots, but the craziest came with his team trailing by two and just under two minutes to play. The shot clock was winding down, and he was being hounded by Jeff Teague some 35 feet from the basket.

And then, this happened.

“I said thank god,” Hollins remarked, when discussing the shot that was characterized as a prayer in a postgame question. “We needed it, and it was answered.”

It was by no means the game’s deciding play; that would have been this one from Thaddeus Young, an and-1 floater with just under a minute to play in the overtime session. But it was one of the most important in terms of keeping the Nets in it long enough to eventually emerge victorious.

“I honestly don’t know what happened,” Williams said of his shot-clock-buzzer-beating shot. “I just knew the clock was winding down, I had to get a shot off and it felt good as soon as it left my hand.”

Williams never responds publicly to criticism, and seems to take any negative comments in stride — including some that came from his former teammate Paul Pierce just before the postseason began. But he does hear them, and when someone like his head coach takes up publicly for him, the kindness doesn’t go unnoticed.

“It definitely means a lot,” Williams said of Hollins defending him. “I thanked him today after the game, and it means a lot when your coach, when you’re struggling like that, when your coach comes out and defends you the way he did, it definitely means a lot. It says a lot about how much he cares about not only me, but this team and our players.”

Hollins has been able to turn the negativity surrounding Williams early in this series into a huge positive, which has galvanized his team in the process. Williams was able to respond on the court with a transcendent Game 4 performance, and hopes to build on it the rest of the way.

“I just want to keep being aggressive like this throughout the series,” Williams said. “We evened it up, we’re playing better as a team, and we’re figuring things out. So I just need to keep being aggressive like this.”

Report: NBA executives believe 76ers more likely to trade Joel Embiid than Ben Simmons

76ers stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons
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The 76ers have spent years building around Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Supporting players come and go. Embiid and Simmons remain, even amid a sometimes-awkward fit.

But chatter has increased about Philadelphia trading one of its top two stars.

So, would Embiid or Simmons be the one to go?

Tim Bontemps of ESPN:

There is no consensus, but league execs think that if the Sixers do explore a trade, Embiid is more likely to be moved — health being the determining factor in building around Simmons.

When a team is looking to trade one of two players, people frequently predict the less-valuable player will get dealt. It’s not logical. Other teams also know about Embiid’s health concerns. That’ll lower Philadelphia’s return.

I wonder whether these executives know something or are just conveying how they’d handle the situation.

The latter doesn’t mean much. The 76ers have their own view and, less than a year ago, owner Josh Harris called Embiid “our most important player. He’s clearly our future.”

Perhaps, Philadelphia’s stance has changed. Trying to line up trade trade proposals, the 76ers might have tipped their hand.

The mere possibility of that scenario makes this worth watching.

Former John Beilein-coached Michigan player in NBA: Cavaliers players don’t value winning

Former Cavaliers coach John Beilein
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The Cavaliers tuned out John Beilein then tuned their music to songs about thugs.

Beilein lasted less than a season as Cleveland’s coach.

But one of his former players at Michigan is sticking up for him.

Sam Amico of Sports Illustrated:

Even under the cloak of anonymity, that’s a harsh way for an NBA player to talk about fellow NBA players.

Who said it? There are nine suspects:

Whoever he is, that player lacks full context.

None of those players were on a clear NBA track when arriving in Ann Arbor. They all developed under Beilein’s tutelage. Beilein’s message lands differently when you’re already in the NBA – especially when you’re a proven player like Kevin Love or Tristan Thompson. As I said when Beilein was hired, there was going to be a race between Beilein convincing his players he could help them and them believing they could walk all over him. He lost the race. In Ann Arbor, in part because of his power over his less-heralded players, Beilein repeatedly earned buy-in first.

None of those players were on Beilein’s first Michigan team, which went 10-22. Beilein has typically come into a new job preaching fundamentals. That sets a foundation for future winning. But in the short term, the lack of focus on games can lead to plenty of losing. Beilein’s first season with the Wolverines was exhausting, and the end was a welcome respite. Everyone returned for year two better prepared, and Michigan took off. But the NBA season is far longer. The Cavs already endured 54 games under Beilein’s first-year approach. Another 28 was asking a lot.

Maybe Cavaliers players would have been better off in the long run if they accepted Beilein’s teaching. But it’s on Beilein to earn their trust, and he never did.

The case for Luka Doncic as Most Improved Player

Mavericks star Luka Doncic
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Luka Doncic checked his phone at halftime Sunday. Someone sent him a picture of 17-year-old Doncic and Russell Westbrook in an exhibition game between Real Madrid and the Thunder in 2016. Now, Doncic was playing with Westbrook in the NBA All-Star game.

“It was kind of amazing,” Doncic said.

Doncic has been playing professionally since he was 16. He came to the NBA as EuroLeague MVP. Now, he’s an NBA MVP candidate. It feels like he has been on this level a long time.

But Doncic’s Most Valuable Player campaign has obscured a bid for an award that fits him even better: Most Improved Player.

Voters are reluctant to pick second-year players, especially highly drafted ones like Doncic, who was the No. 3 pick in 2018. There’s a notion those players are “supposed to” improve.

But we don’t do this for any other award. Imagine not voting a No. 1 pick for Rookie of the Year because he’s supposed to be good. Nobody will refuse to vote Giannis Antetokounmpo for MVP this season because, as reigning MVP, he’s supposed to be good. It’s a silly argument.

Besides, this far more than typical second-year improvement.

Doncic has increased his box plus-minus from +4.1 last season to +11.4 this season. That’s the biggest jump ever for a Rookie of the Year into his second season. Only LeBron James is even in the ballpark.

Here are the biggest increases in box plus-minus by Rookie of the Year winners into their second season. Players are listed by their rookie year:

Mavericks star Luka Doncic

LeBron finished sixth in 2005 Most Improved Player voting. Bobby Simmons, who increased his box plus-minus by just 2.5 (-0.8 to +1.7) won the award.

Again, it’s hard for second-year players.

But again, this is not just some predestined natural improvement. This is one of the biggest leaps of all-time.

Here are the largest-ever increases in box plus-minus from a previous career high (minimum: 500 minutes each season)

Mavericks star Luka Doncic

Again, LeBron is Doncic’s only peer on that leaderboard. They’re the only two to start with a positive box plus-minus.

But Doncic’s rookie-year plus-minus was even higher than LeBron’s.

It’s harder to go from good to great, and that’s what Doncic has done – unlike anyone else ever.

Doncic has taken total control of the Mavericks’ offense. He creates for himself, for others. And he even improved his efficiency while shouldering the extra burden.

Among players who had a prior high of at least +3.0, Doncic has increased his box plus-minus FAR more than anyone else (minimum: 500 minutes each season):

Box plus-minus probably tends to overrate players who contribute across the box score, like Doncic. That stat is just one of many considerations.

I’m not totally convinced Doncic should win Most Improved Player, though he was my midseason choice. Hornets point guard Devonte' Graham has gone from out of the rotation to quality starter. Brandon Ingram blossomed just in time to get paid. Trae Young, another highly drafted sophomore, is having a breakout year. There are plenty of other candidates, too.

But Doncic – regardless of his experience and draft position – absolutely belongs prominently in the discussion.

Damian Lillard: Trail Blazers last team anyone wants to face in playoffs

Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard
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The Western Conference could have its first playoff team with a losing record since expanding to 15 teams. The Trail Blazers, Pelicans, Grizzlies and Spurs are in the race for the No. 8 seed.

What if Portland reaches the postseason?

Trail Blazers:

Damian Lillard:

I’m pretty sure we’re the last team that anybody want to see.

This is probably true – relatively. Lillard is great and clutch. C.J. McCollum stepped up last postseason. Carmelo Anthony is widely respected by his peers. Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins could return from injury by the playoffs and make Portland more dangerous than its record.

But the Trail Blazers would still be a No. 8 seed, likely with a losing record.

I’d rather see Portland as a playoff opponent than the Lakers, Clippers, Rockets, Jazz and Nuggets. Depending how everyone finishes, probably the Mavericks and Thunder, too.

There’s variance given the star power, players returning from injury and – going the other direction – underwhelming play throughout the season. But in the middle of outcomes, Portland looks like a fairly typical No. 8 seed. That’s not so imposing.

And that’s if the Trail Blazers even reach the postseason. With Lillard injured, it’ll be difficult to pass Memphis and fend off New Orleans and San Antonio.