A sobering losing spell, reality-check coaching fire, and one extraordinary third-quarter have turned corner on Nets season

By Joe Manganiello

After Brooklyn’s milestone third-quarter in Philadelphia last night, the Nets are finally starting to validate all of the hype they entered the season with.

Yes, the Nets did have a pair of five-game winning streaks in November to get out to an 11-4 record. But a 3-10 slide to begin the month of December buried the Nets under the Knicks in the Atlantic (he he) and begged the question if a lack of chemistry and the struggling play of Deron Williams would keep the Nets down in the east.

In the same week, the Nets lost by fourteen to the Knicks, by seventeen to the Celtics and by fifteen to the Bucks, with the Nets averaging just 85 points per game in those three losses.

So, much beloved head coach Avery Johnson was let go after the Bucks game. And suddenly everyone attached to that franchise, from its billionaire, Russian owner to its flamboyant rap icon minority owner to its crop of former all-stars to its hyped new fan base, took a deep breath, realizing just how far away from their 11-4 start they had wandered.

With a new perspective on the season, the Nets began playing basketball with a bit more care. They caught the Charlotte Bobcats on a league-worst losing streak and took care of business, out rebounding them (+7) and out assisting them (+8) despite not having Deron Williams.

The Nets beat the Cavaliers the following night. And while the Bobcats and Cavs are two of the league’s most remedial opponents, the two games allowed the Nets to discover something necessary about themselves: the team must score through Brook Lopez and Joe Johnson, and not their point guard.

Call it a hangover from the previous season and a half, but Deron Williams was trying to do too much. It was costing the team games.

In November, he had concerning shooting splits of .388/.269/.855. Those numbers improved ever so slightly in December up to .408/.329/.776. But Williams is playing with a much lower efficiency compared to his two star counterparts.

Johnson has been a sure scorer for the Nets with shooting splits of .431/.368/.797 on 14.9 FGA. When Johnson is on the court, the Nets are +16.4 net points per 100 possessions better, including a staggering 11.8 points per 100 possessions better defensively. Lopez is shooting .525 from the field this season on 14.5 FGA and the team is +5.7 net points per 100 possessions better with Lopez on the court.

Conversely, Deron Williams has a +/- of -0.3 per 48 minutes. The Nets are -7.2 net points per 100 possessions worse with Williams on the court.

The biggest problem for Williams is when he plays off ball as the scoring guard. So far this season, Williams PER/48-min drops four points (18.1 to 14.0) at SG and his eFG% drops over 100 points (.481 to .378). Williams has a +/- of -11.8 per 48-minutes at SG.

It is essential for the Nets to keep Williams on ball at PG, as their defensive and offensive chemistry takes a major hit when they try to feature him as a scorer.

The Nets last loss came on Dec. 31 on the road against San Antonio, a challenging match-up for any team in the league. On Jan. 2, the Nets beat the Thunder in Oklahoma, one of only three teams to do that this season.

How’d they win? In a game where he only took a dozen shots, Williams had 19 points, dished 13 assists, had 5 steals (twice robbing Westbrook, who had six turnovers on the day), was perfect from the charity stripe and earned a +18. What an ideal game for the PG.

Johnson hit 11 of 19 shots on the way to a 33-point performance and a +15, while Lopez scored 25 points on 11 of 17 shooting. The team had impressive shooting splits of .500/.529/.862, and I don’t think it is a stretch to say it was the play of their floor general, Williams, that directly impacted the victory the greatest.

Brooklyn defeated the Kings and Wizards on back to back nights before arriving in Philadelphia last night. The divisional opponents played a back and forth first half, with Brooklyn going into the break with only a one-point lead.

But when the Nets came back onto the court, I saw something I hadn’t seen from them all season: I saw an offense that looked downright unstoppable.

In succession, Lopez hits a mid-range jumper, then Williams. Wallace makes a driving layup. The 76ers are forced the call a timeout, but to no avail, because Thaddeus Young missed a jumper, Gerald Wallace rebounded it the other way for the Nets and Joe Johnson hit a three-pointer off the assist from Wallace.

Just like that, a 9-0 run, in Philadelphia, and suddenly the Nets could do no wrong.

Brooklyn would get a long-two from Williams, a dunk by Lopez, a three-pointer from Wallace (which I seldom advice, but when it rains it pours), another long-two from Williams, a three-pointer from Johnson and to cap off the 24-7 run, an offensive rebound by Reggie Evans, who assisted Williams on a three-pointer.

A one-point game at halftime was very quickly a 72-54 game. In fact, following a Thaddeus Young jumper, Wallace added another bucket and Brook Lopez would dunk off a Williams assist to secure a 20-point lead. The Nets took a full timeout, by choice, to get subs into the game, and the likes of Andray Blatche, Mirza Teletovic, Kieth Bogans and Gerald Wallace helped the Nets head into the fourth quarter with a 22-point lead.

As Deron Williams walked off the court to end the third quarter, I wondered what he was thinking about. Was he completely in the moment, pumped up about the shooting clinic his team had accomplished during a 35-point period?

Was he humbled by the  lower moments of the early season enough to know that this one regular season game – and that one regular season quarter – was nothing more than a small step toward a more long-term goal?

Was he, I don’t know, thinking about how a game like that would significantly benefit his sour shooting numbers on the season, as well as his efficiency statistics?

The point has been made: it is impossible to know what he was thinking about. But I hope that as that game finished up (an 109-89 victory for Brooklyn), Williams thought about all of these things: how he has fallen in the public eye since the controversial Utah trade; how the Nets franchise has invested so much money in him, as well as in this nucleus of Williams/Johnson/Wallace/Lopez; how the roster will change very little over the duration of his contact; and how this is the team, for better or worse, that Williams will be defined by long after his playing days are done.

And so at a time when the Nets have won 6 of 7 games, in second-place in the Atlantic and appear to have “figuring out how to play together” on the ropes, I hope Williams looked at last night’s Philadelphia game as thoughtfully as I did. Williams is one of the best point guards in recent memory, an Olympian, and an all-star. He got close in Utah a couple times, which is easier said then done, but his legacy – a word thrown around more and more often in NBA discussion – will be measured on if Williams can be the best player on a team that can make it to the NBA finals. If he and his Nets fail to do that, then his all-time rank in his era and at his position will fall into place accordingly.

That kind of awareness can’t be coached or bought by a max-level contract. I just wonder how aware Williams is about that.

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