NEW YORK -- His play wasn't as egregious as two nights earlier, when he failed to score a point in a game for the first time in eight seasons -- and 662 straight games -- but enigmatic Brooklyn Nets point guard Deron Williams also didn't settle the long-running, often contentious debate on whether the Nets should keep waiting for him to be their franchise star, or resign themselves to the thought he can be a nice little $98 million game manager instead.
That was the takeaway from Williams' comeback performance Saturday night as the Nets, badly needing a win to avoid falling into an 0-3 hole against the Miami Heat, returned to Barclays Center and breathed some excitement back into this second-round series with a feel-good, 104-90 win. They now have a chance to even the series at two with another win on Monday at home.
But Williams? He remains a maddeningly difficult man to get a temperature on.
Just when you figure Williams had little choice but to assert himself as the Nets' franchise player and respond with an absolute fury Saturday night -- it even seemed like he might when he drove to the rim and scored his first basket just 28 seconds into the game -- his scoring disappeared again. His second hoop didn't come until another 21 minutes, 48 seconds ran off the game clock, and that accounted for all of Williams' scoring in the first half, back when this game was still a game, a game the Nets called a "must win."
"Sure, my shot wasn't falling," Williams allowed. "But I felt I was making plays for my teammates."
He was lucky they made the plays for him. Williams had promised to use the 48-hour wait between Games 2 and 3 to chew over what had gone wrong for him and then come out more aggressively. But only a 3-point buzzer-beater that Shaun Livingston launched not long after crossing midcourt gave the Nets a 51-49 lead heading into the second half.
And so, while the stirring end result was exactly what Brooklyn wanted -- Paul Pierce said the Nets showed the Heat "We're not scared of them" -- this win wasn't exactly the way the Nets would prefer Williams to get them there.
The Nets won because their bench was terrific. Williams got to hide in the shade of a playoff career-high 15 points from Andray Blatche, who played only five minutes in Game 2, and some white-hot 3-point shooting by Mirza Teletovic (12 points), their fourth-best big man.
On another night, Williams' final line of nine points on 3-for-11 shooting -- and especially his 2-for-7 first-half shooting start, while this game was still a game -- would've been the cause for more caterwauling about what he doesn't do.
The Nets didn't give Williams a max contract to be the best little ball distributor on either side of the East River, and they're not going to beat the Heat in this best-of-seven series if Blatche and Teletovic have to be their best players night in and night out.
Williams (11 assists) did make some nice passes Saturday night. Yes, he did. And the Nets' ball movement was impressive at times, forcing the Heat to move their feet and defend three, four passes on a single possession. When the Nets did that, all of a sudden, the Heat's help defense -- which bothered the Nets early in the game -- wasn't there anymore. Brooklyn got scoring from five different players during the 18-5 third-quarter run that broke open the game.
Sometimes, Williams was right to give up the ball when Miami sent double-teams running at him by the foul line; at other times, his tendency to pass up open shots was galling.
"I told him after the [last] game, you're not gonna play great every night, but you bring so many different dimensions to the game. Lean on that," Nets forward Kevin Garnett said. "I try to be a confident teammate for him and just let him know that it's not the end of the world, and not to be hard on yourself ...
"I thought Deron played great, man, I thought he showed a lot of character, a lot of grit."
But that's just Garnett being a good teammate. Even he admitted he tries to give Williams "fuel" and "confidence."
The deserved rap on Williams is he doesn't have some diamond-hard resolve. And nothing he did Saturday will end the referendum on whether he can be the franchise player the Nets hoped he would be when they worked so hard to get him and build this team around him.
One game after going scoreless, you hope for more from Williams than this:
"When my teammates are shooting like that, it makes my job easier," he said.
And that might be true, but taking the easy way is not going to win the Nets an NBA title. Three head coaches and one max contract into his tenure here, the Nets are paying Williams to have statement games -- especially this time of year.
For better or worse, this is Williams' team.