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.”