NEW YORK -- Deron Williams desperately needed a game like this.
A game in which he was the best player on the court. A game in which he blew by defenders and hit big shots. A game in which he reminded everyone of how good he used to be.
Maybe D-Will isn’t done after all. Maybe he still has a lot left in the tank.
On Friday night, Williams played his best game of the season while carrying his team to its biggest win of the 2014-15 campaign. He scored a season-high 31 points and dished out 11 assists -- his first 30-10 regular-season performance in nearly two years -- and the surging Brooklyn Nets earned their sixth straight victory, beating the Toronto Raptors 114-109 in what was definitely a playoff atmosphere at the sold-out Barclays Center.
Williams came into the game averaging just 13.0 points and 6.4 assists while shooting a career-worst 39.0 percent from the field. In a recent poll conducted by ESPN Insider, he was ranked as the 20th-best point guard in the entire NBA. One executive even opined that he might not be the best floor general on his own team. Recently, he had been benched during the fourth quarters of games in favor of his backup, Jarrett Jack.
Williams had posted 26 points, seven assists and seven rebounds against the New York Knicks two nights earlier. But this was different. Sure, the Raptors were without Kyle Lowry, but the stakes were higher. This wasn’t a team in tank mode. And this was a win the Nets (35-40) had to have. They currently find themselves in seventh place in the lowly Eastern Conference, a full game up on the Miami Heat (34-41) with seven games remaining.
“I’ve been through a lot since I’ve been here. I want to play good for myself. I want to play good for my family and, more importantly, God,” Williams told ESPN.com while walking to his car after the game was over. “We just gotta keep on trucking. Things haven’t gone our way, but we have to keep a positive attitude -- no matter if I play the whole second half, don’t play the whole second half, don’t finish games, finish games, I can only control what I can control.”
This time, Williams played the entire second half. Nets coach Lionel Hollins didn’t have confidence in his bench, he said, so he made his best decision of the 2014-15 campaign, riding his starters to victory. Jack, who came in ranked 76th among 80 qualifying point guards in Real Plus-Minus, was a minus-11 in 10 minutes. Normally, Hollins rides him down the stretch. Not this time. And Hollins was rewarded as a result. Williams was a plus-16 in 38 minutes.
Williams, Brook Lopez and trade-deadline steal Thaddeus Young combined for 90 points. Lopez, who also played the entire second half, had 30 points and 17 rebounds in 44 minutes, while Young added 29 points, six rebounds, four steals and what proved to be the game-winning shot -- a putback of D-Will’s miss with 22 seconds left that unlocked a 109-all tie -- in 37 minutes.
“Anytime you can get in this type of situation, it’s huge,” said Young, who was acquired in exchange for potential future Minnesota owner-to-be Kevin Garnett. “I’m one of those players that wants to be in the playoffs each and every year, and I want a chance to win championships. When they told me they were going to trade me here, I said, 'Perfect.'"
Young has proved to the perfect fit for what has become a dominant starting lineup. The combination of Williams, Young, Lopez, Joe Johnson and rookie Markel Brown has outscored the opposition by 18.2 points per 100 possessions since the All-Star break -- the third-best mark of any five-man lineup (min. 150 minutes), according to NBA.com’s stats.
“We have a good mixture of scoring and guys who can play without the basketball,” Young replied when asked why the lineup has had so much success playing together. “Me, Joe, Markel, we can play without the basketball a little bit. Brook actually can play without the basketball, too. D-Will can play without the basketball. So we have a good, solid mixture of veteran guys, a lot of scoring. We have a lot a good punch. When D-Will and Brook have the pick-and-roll going, it makes it perfect because I’ll be standing out there spacing out the court. And with Joe and Markel, it’s hard to help off all three of us, and then sometimes I kinda just put it on the baseline a little bit and get a few baskets. It works out perfect.”
Imagine if it hadn’t.
During the All-Star break, Williams was enjoying a relaxing vacation with his family in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. Meanwhile, the night before the Feb. 19 trade deadline, the Nets re-engaged in serious talks with Oklahoma City about sending Lopez to the Thunder and turning the keys to their franchise over to Reggie Jackson. But in the final hour, the deal fell through.
Williams stayed the starter, while Lopez became confident in his surgically repaired foot and began playing the best basketball of his career. Brown took on an increased role when Bojan Bogdanovic suffered an ankle sprain and became a lockdown, on-ball defender. And with Garnett gone, the leadership dynamic on the team also changed.
“KG meant a lot to us defensively, energy-wise, leadership-wise,” Williams said.
“I just think it allows other guys to kinda step up and just talk, and it’s kinda a team thing now. KG’s such a great leader and a guy we just turned to. It just was kinda that’s what we always did.”
After being outscored 27-15 in the second quarter and trailing by as many as nine early in the third, the Nets needed someone to step up. D-Will did -- with a little help from official Eli Roe. Williams felt Roe missed a foul call. So he took his frustration out on the Raptors, kicking it into another gear and scoring 10 consecutive Brooklyn points.
“I did get a little frustrated with the lack of the call, but it happens,” Williams said of his drive to the rim that didn’t get a whistle despite a lot of contact right before his scoring spree. “It may not have even been a foul. I just felt it was, and it helped.”
Later, Williams would hit his first clutch shot in a long time, a 3-pointer that gave the Nets a 109-107 lead with 46 seconds left. He then would take an open runner in the lane only to see Young clean things up.
“I think we got younger and a little bit more athletic,” Williams said of the Young trade, which might have benefited him as much as anyone. “And I think Thad at this point in his career adds a little more offensively. It always us to get out and run more.”
The Nets have to face the Atlanta Hawks on Saturday night in the second game of a back-to-back. It’s going to be tough. They’ll have to summon some extra energy, that much is certain. Still, they came away with a huge win on their home floor, something they hadn’t been able to do for much of the season (16-20 overall).
And each time DeMar DeRozan (27 points, eight rebounds, eight assists) and Louis Williams (14 of his 23 points in the fourth) hit a ridiculous shot down the stretch, the Nets had an answer. It feels like the playoffs have started early in Brooklyn, and the home team is peaking at the right time.
Williams, who will make $21 million next season and holds an early-termination option ($22.3 million) for 2016-17, didn’t want to think about what-ifs.
“I don’t care about trade rumors, who they bring in here,” he said. “That doesn’t bother me one bit. I could care less. I motivate myself.”
Williams sure seemed motivated on Friday night. Maybe it took a bad call from an official, but it certainly conjured up memories of past greatness.
Now it’s just a matter of the three-time All-Star sustaining it for the rest of the regular season -- and making sure his team reaches the postseason in the process.
“It’s been really hard at times to get into a rhythm at times,” Williams said. “So I feel like the last couple games, I’ve been able to be more aggressive and get into a rhythm, and coach drew up some plays for me, and I felt really good out there.