Although Williams never came close to the rim with 231-pound Valanciunas in his way –- the Nets point guard also might have been fouled –- the tone was set.
Super-aggressive Deron had come to play. And the Nets were loving and feeding off every bit of it.
In the Nets’ 102-98 Game 3 victory over the Raptors on Friday, Williams gave Brooklyn and everybody watching a glimpse of what makes him so critical to Brooklyn's championship hopes and what can also make him a tad frustrating.
It was the best –- and a tiny bit of the worst –- of Deron wrapped into one game. Williams was terrific for the majority of the game, scoring 22 points and notching eight assists. But he also surprisingly missed 3 of 5 free throws in seven seconds late to help the Raptors make the Nets very nervous at the end.
Fortunately for Williams and the Nets, the Raptors’ Patrick Patterson also missed two big free throws that could have tied the score with 19 seconds left and the Nets eventually escaped after Paul Pierce and Joe Johnson sealed the game from the line.
Although Williams’ ending was a tad shaky, the point guard’s aggressive play is a major reason the Nets are up 2-1 in this best-of-seven series.
In the Nets’ two wins against Toronto, Williams has been everything Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Kidd envisioned when they set out this season to make sure they got the best out of the former All-Star.
It’s no coincidence Williams is averaging 23 points in the two Nets victories. On Friday night, he repeatedly attacked a banged-up Kyle Lowry and the Raptors by pushing the “pedal to the metal” as he has from the start of this series, as noted by Toronto coach Dwane Casey. Williams is winning the battle of the point guards, and that's a key reason the Nets are leading the series.
Williams had the crowd buzzing with lightning-quick crossovers that often led to feathery floaters in the lane. He sacrificed his body by diving for a loose ball with the same vigor as Garnett, who also drove for the same ball. And he chased Greivis Vasquez until he blocked his shot from behind.
Williams’ chemistry with Johnson (29 points) was also on full display in a third-quarter flurry that saw Williams find Johnson on three consecutive baskets -– two of which were 3-pointers.
The Nets might have traded for Pierce and Garnett to provide championship leadership and experience, but Williams and Johnson are the two who can take the Nets to another level when they play the way they did in that third quarter, turning a three-point lead into an 11-point cushion.
“We had to learn how to play with each other,” Williams said. “We are two guys that, not saying we dominated the ball, but we had the ball in our hands a lot. And we had to learn to share the ball and learn where each other is going to be. We have a great understanding of that now. It is fun to play with.”
The Nets’ lead had grown to 15 with 5:44 remaining when Brooklyn nearly melted down. The Raptors had cut the deficit to 95-91 when Williams was fouled by Vasquez with 47.3 seconds to go.
Vasquez was also whistled for a technical foul, sending Williams to the line for three foul shots. Williams made two of three. After DeMar DeRozan made two free throws to trim the Nets’ lead to four again, Williams went to the line with 40.7 seconds left.
But stunningly, the 81.7 percent career free throw shooter missed both. The Nets’ lead would soon be whittled down to 97-96 with 34.3 seconds to go.
You can imagine what Williams –- or any player, for that matter -- might’ve been thinking to himself. He has candidly talked about how fragile his confidence has been in the past couple of seasons after fighting through so many injuries.
“Deron’s biggest problem has been Deron,” Garnett said of Williams after Game 1. “He’s very, very hard on himself, to the point where you have to pull him to the side and give him some real s---, say some real s--- to him.”
Garnett, Pierce and Kidd have surrounded Williams with a veteran support system all season. They have tried to make sure Williams’ confidence would peak by this part of the calendar.
In Kidd’s postgame presser, a reporter said Williams looked rattled after the missed free throws.
“How do you know he was rattled?” Kidd retorted. “He’s human. It happens. We’ve all been there before. Again, we got the win. He missed a couple, but we still believe when he goes to the free throw line he is going to make the next one.”
Like Kidd, Pierce also thought the Nets and younger players such as Williams could learn and benefit from Brooklyn’s sloppy finish in Game 3. Remember, Pierce and Garnett were brought in to show Williams and Johnson how to win in the playoffs after Brooklyn lost to Chicago last year.
“You go out there and search for perfection,” Pierce said. “No game is perfect, but you want to come as close to it as possible. You know you can be a lot better. I am looking forward down the road, I am looking forward when it is like that Game 6 or 7, if we are ever in that situation with this team.”
Williams isn’t perfect, as Game 3 showed. Neither were his teammates.
But Pierce and Garnett aren’t looking for perfection from Williams. They’ll gladly take the point guard who came out on Friday trying to posterize Valanciunas and terrorizing the Raptors with his aggressive play.
If the Nets continue to get more of that Williams, Brooklyn could find itself playing well into late May -- and perhaps beyond.