By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com
DALLAS — Following Sunday night’s inspired overtime win, a relieved Deron Williams walked deliberately — limped is more like it — on delicate ankles toward the Texas barbecue buffet Mavericks owner Mark Cuban provides visiting teams after games.
As Williams stacked brisket, sausage and potato salad onto his to-go plate, the Brooklyn Nets point guard, who grew up 30 minutes up the highway, had no intention of discussing his physical state. Not that that’s anything new for the ornery Williams, who’s known to grow testy when interrogated about the difficulty of playing on bad wheels.
“It is, but what can you do?” Williams said. “There’s nothing you can do about it. I feel great right now. We just got a win, I’m happy about that, and I want to get one [tonight]. That’s my concern.”
The Nets, now 37-31 and just 1 1/2 games behind Atlantic Division-leading Toronto, have won 11 of 13 and seek a fifth consecutive win tonight at New Orleans (8 p.m. ET, League Pass).
With 15 points on 3-for-9 shooting and three assists, Williams didn’t play his best game in the 107-104 come-from-behind victory against the hometown team he spurned as a free agent two summers ago to instead lead the Nets out of New Jersey and into the promised land of Brooklyn. Still, Williams logged a team-high 42 minutes and stuck with it long enough to drop a 3-point dagger, the only one he’d hit on five attempts, to give the Nets, who turned to solid defense on a poor-shooting night, an eight-point cushion with 1:26 to go.
The workload was his highest since Feb. 13 and well above the 33.2 mpg Williams has averaged since returning on Jan. 20 from more ankle issues that sidelined him for nearly three weeks. In early January he received a cortisone shot and platelet-rich plasma injections in both ankles.
“I think he’s getting to where he wants to be,” teammate Joe Johnson said. “I can see that pop coming back. He’s playing aggressive, getting to the rim, so that’s what we need out of him. He’s working, man, everyday, coming in, getting his shots up, doing whatever it takes to be effective. I think he’s getting there.”
Williams, 29, might never again challenge Chris Paul for point-guard supremacy in the league, but a physically and mentally sharp Williams is the Nets’ only hope for making a long playoff run that seemed improbable, if not impossible, just two months ago. Jason Kidd, a close friend of Williams’ before he became his coach over the summer, has preached patience.
“We spent a lot of time through practices and games and spend some time together off the court,” Kidd said. “The biggest thing for an athlete or anybody at that level, health is the first thing. He wasn’t healthy and now he’s starting to get healthy. He feels good and you can see his play, he’s playing at a high level.”
With the 6-foot-3, 209-pound Williams averaging 14.9 ppg and 5.9 apg since his latest return, with Paul Pierce engaged, Joe Johnson continuing to be clutch, a boost from deadline acquisition Marcus Thornton and general good health beyond Kevin Garnett, the high-priced Nets have at least made themselves a threat to potentially challenge Indiana or Miami if they can get out of the first round.
“If you’re in the East looking at them in the first round or second round,” Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said, “you wouldn’t want to play that team.”
Kidd, one of the league’s most durable players throughout his 19-year career, knows his team’s fortunes depend on good health. He’s done a terrific job of utilizing his bench and spreading minutes to ease wear-and-tear on the veterans he’ll lean on in the playoffs. Johnson leads the team logging just 32.8 mpg. Williams, at 32.0 mpg, by far the lowest of his nine seasons, is the only other Nets player averaging more than 30.0 mpg.
Williams said early season criticism of Kidd was unfair because of the onslaught of injuries to key players. Since Jan. 1 they’ve been one of the hottest teams in the league, going 27-10.
“We’re healthy, that’s the biggest thing,” Williams said. “At the beginning of the season we were injured. We were injured and that’s tough on him [Kidd], not having guys at full strength and not having his guys out there, so that made it difficult. And now we’re still not whole, but we’re more healthy, we’re playing with more confidence.
“A lot of it is us. He was doing a great job earlier, we were just not, I don’t want to say not buying in, we were buying in, it just wasn’t clicking like it is now. It took us a little longer than we thought to learn what he wanted and get on the same page.”