Posts Tagged ‘Deron Wiliams’

Morning shootaround — Nov. 22

VIDEO: The Fast Break — Nov. 21

Cuban lets loose | Deron Williams rebounds | Fast-improving Favors is officially a Utah favorite | Warriors not stressing over record

No. 1: Cuban lets loose — The most sought-after interview in the NBA never changes. It’s significant time with Mark Cuban, the Mavericks owner and the maverick owner who always speaks his mind, which he can literally afford to do. Cuban is always entertaining and forthright and pretty much on-point with his thoughts on basketball or really anything you ask of him. Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe managed to get some time with Cuban and we’re all better off for it:

He remains the most entertaining owner in the NBA, and he’ll offer an opinion on anything he is asked, making him one of the most transparent figures in sports.

Cuban was asked about the firing of Kevin McHale by his rivals, the Houston Rockets. Cuban has had very public feuds with Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, especially when the Mavericks nabbed swingman Chandler Parsons from the Rockets with a mega-deal in July 2014.

“I like Kevin, I feel bad for him personally, but the rest of it? Whatever,” Cuban said. “I mean, we’ve been in a high-expectation position before. We go to the Finals, we started 0-4 [in 2006-07], and it’s ‘what’s wrong?’ and we came back to win 67 games and lose in the first round.

“So I’ve said it before, the hardest thing for an NBA owner to do is hire a coach. The easiest thing to do is fire a coach. The reason it’s hard to hire a coach, coaches are great at date-face, they know exactly what your weaknesses are and they know exactly how to sell to those weaknesses, so it’s really difficult to pick it right and it’s 90 percent luck.”

Cuban recently signed his coach, Rick Carlisle, to a five-year extension.

“If the hardest thing to find is a good coach, you marry him, you put a ring on it,” Cuban said.

Asked about the escalating salary cap that will kick in next season with the new television contract, Cuban said, “It’s going to change a lot. More from a strategy perspective, it makes the value of draft choices go through the roof because they’re pegged at a certain price. Minimum contracts will go through the roof. Anybody that signs for the mid-level, the value goes through the roof.

“It’s going to be a lot of tough decisions. And in reality, if everything sticks to the projections that we come up with, the cap will go down after that. So that changes what you do as well.

“It will be really interesting. There will be some guys that will get way paid. When guys are making $30 million-plus, it’s going to be tough to have more than one of them.”

Cuban said he has no issues paying players such exorbitant salaries because that is the price of a championship.

“What’s a championship worth?” he said. “I always look at it as a team. The biggest mistake people make in this business is they say this player is worth ‘X.’ That’s never the case. When you insert that player as one of 15, if he can increase the value of [the team], he’s cheap.

“I remember back when we [acquired] Erick Dampier [in the middle of a $49 million contract] and everybody said we were idiots. Without that big body, we don’t go to The Finals, and we still should have won that Finals if it weren’t for three blind mice [i.e. the officials].”


No. 2: Deron Williams rebounds — OK, there’s no sense in proclaiming him the leader for comeback story of the year, since Paul George is way ahead and probably won’t look back. But Deron Williams is experiencing somewhat of a rejuvenation in Dallas after being dumped by the Nets and declared finished as a productive player. He’s hardly in All-Star form, yet the Mavericks are surprisingly flourishing right now and Williams is one of the reasons. Last season in Brooklyn, he was on the bench in tight games in favor of Jarrett Jack. But now, the ball’s in his hands and the Mavericks have confidence in him. More importantly, Williams has confidence in himself. Here’s Eddie Sefko of the Dallas Morning News with the details:

He was a crunch-time beast Friday as the Mavericks weathered a hard push from Utah, steadied themselves behind their point guard and whipped the Jazz 102-93 at American Airlines Center for their sixth consecutive victory, matching their longest streak of last season.

At 9-4, the Mavericks hit the road for a three-game trip starting Sunday at Oklahoma City.

Williams finished with 23 points, eight assists, six rebounds and three steals. His 3-pointer after a nice feed from Raymond Felton with two minutes to play put the Mavericks up 95-87. He added to that cushion with a pair of free throws — running his streak to 35 without a miss this season — as the Mavericks finished off the Jazz, who fell behind by 20 but got as close as five down the stretch.

Williams missed almost all of training camp with nagging injuries and had a knee problem early in the regular season. He has rounded into form nicely of late. He took over the Boston game on Wednesday with 11 fourth-quarter points and was every bit as dominant against the Jazz.

Williams isn’t quite ready to pronounce himself as the Mavericks’ closer, but he’s certainly sent a message that he’s capable of doing so.

“Everything’s coming together,” he said. “It’s still early. I don’t want to get ahead of myself. But I definitely feel more comfortable out there. I’m getting opportunities in the fourth. I’ve had a chance to have the ball in my hands at the ends of games, and I can make plays not only for myself and others.”

It’s a nice feeling, one that Williams hasn’t enjoyed often enough in recent seasons. He got overlooked or overshadowed too many times in Brooklyn.

“There were times when I did a lot of standing, a lot of watching,” he said. “And that takes away your aggressiveness. That’s not what I’m good at.”


No. 3:Fast improving Favors is a Utah favorite — Interesting thing about Deron Williams: He cost the Nets a lot, and not just $100 million. Remember, the Nets surrendered a promising teenage power forward named Derrick Favors to get Williams, and years later, it’s clear that Utah came out ahead. Favors’ game is maturing and he’s becoming a double-double guy, following previous Jazz low-post beats who collected doubles, Karl Malone and Al Jefferson. The sixth-year forward spent time with Tony Jones of the Salt Lake Tribune, who offers this:

“I think last year was my first time having fun again, playing basketball,” Favors said. “I got comfortable with talking to the coaches. I felt more responsible and got more comfortable as a team leader. I have more responsibility offensively and defensively. I feel better in my role, and I think that’s made me open up a lot more.”

As the Jazz prepare to face the Oklahoma City Thunder on Monday, Favors is shining in his role as a difference-making power forward.

Favors, in his sixth season out of Georgia Tech, is averaging 16 points and nine rebounds per game, to go with 1.5 blocks. He’s been a hub offensively in the post and on the perimeter when he drifts to 15-18 feet from the basket. Defensively, he’s been almost spectacular, not just blocking shots, but in pick-and-roll coverages and defending the perimeter against stretch power forwards and smaller guards.

Beyond the numbers, Favors is playing with an edge previously unseen. For the first time in his career, he’s showing emotion on the floor, scowling after snatching rebounds, celebrating after baskets. People are noticing. Whispers around the league suggest Favors could have a shot at the All-Star Game, if he continues to play well and if the Jazz find consistency in the win column.

Yet, he remains unfazed.

“I think I’ve played well, but I feel like can play a lot better,” Favors said. “As far as offensively, I feel like I can play better, like there’s more stuff I can do. As far as being an All-Star, you never know. You never know how stuff works out, as far as how political the process is.”

So, how has Favors been able to explode? He said the maturation has been six years in the making. He came into the NBA a raw specimen, a 6-foot-10 athletic man-child with few refined skills.

As the No. 3 pick of his draft, Favors was supposed to dominate from the jump. He didn’t, and needed time to adjust, something the then-New Jersey Nets decided they didn’t have enough of. So Favors was brought to Utah in the Deron Williams trade.

Favors was stung by that trade, and to this day plays with a chip because of it. He felt discarded, unwanted at a young age, and was stung by the criticism of him needing development.

The result today is a Favors with an offensive game that’s becoming more well-rounded by the year. He has a consistent jumper. He’s effective with his back to the basket. He’s always been great rebounding the ball for points and he’s becoming a better passer.


No. 4:Warriors not stressing over record — How did we make it this far in the Morning Shootaround without the obligatory Warriors mention? OK, here it goes. The Warriors can tie the NBA record for fastest start tonight against the Nuggets and maybe you’ve heard about that. Well, if you believe the Warriors, they’re taking this historic start in stride, which is in their best interest. Nothing makes these guys sweat, which is easy to avoid when you have Steph Curry on the squad, hitting jumpers, and others filling in. Scott Ostler of the San Francisco Chronicle is with the gang and filed this observation:

The Warriors go for 15 wins in a row Sunday night, and they’ll have to descend about 2 miles in order to reach Pepsi Center’s mile-high altitude. This is a team that is locked in and loosey-goosey, a dangerous combo.

Luke Walton, the interim head coach, was talking Friday night about the Warriors’ team vibe. Apparently, behind closed locker-room doors, these fellows laugh a lot. Walton recalled a pregame moment from last season’s NBA Finals. The Warriors were coming off a loss, they were in trouble, looking beatable in Cleveland.

Steve Kerr and his assistants were huddled in their own locker room minutes before show time, mapping last-minute strategy. They were also wondering about the emotional state of their players.

From next door in the Warriors’ locker room, peals of raucous laughter rang out.

Kerr said to his staff, “I guess they’re going to be all right.”

They were. They are.

In this expert’s opinion, the Warriors will not go 82-0 in this regular season. But whatever losses they suffer won’t be due to the pressure finally getting to them.

One of the key elements Kerr brought to the Warriors — and it remains solidly with them even during his absence from bench — is that, dammit, you’d better have fun.

That’s why the Warriors end many practices with a wild free-for-all shooting contest, as mature as a food fight.
Kerr’s philosophy is that this is dead-serious business, but it’s basketball, played best with a soaring spirit and childlike exuberance.

“Fun, that’s the No. 1 priority,” Draymond Green said Friday night. “That’s what coach Kerr has preached from Day 1: Have fun. Got the best job in the world, we come to play basketball for a living, with guys that we like.”

So the streak is not weighing on you?

“Absolutely not. Not at all.”

Of course, it’s easier (I’m guessing) to have fun when you never lose. There will be sterner tests ahead of the Warriors’ joviality. Right now, they’ve got the top down and they’re enjoying the ride.

But enjoying it too much? If Kerr were speaking publicly these days (no timetable on his return, by the way, but indications are that his recovery is progressing) he would likely express some concern about his team getting a little too loose.

Kerr wants the Warriors to be lightning-fast and creative, but not sloppy and careless. He convinced his team last season that it’s possible to be fast and smart.

The last three games, team leader and floor general Stephen Curry has crossed over into Kerr’s concern area, to the point where Kerr kidded Curry about how much money he’s losing to his mom in their ongoing turnovers bet.

Curry averaged 3.9 turnovers last year as the league MVP. He said before the season that, because of the team’s maturing and his own off-season training, he expected turnovers to go down. Sure enough, through the first 11 games, Curry averaged 3.1 turnovers.

But the last three games Curry turned the ball over seven, seven and six times. Too many.

Walton said Curry’s recent turnover flurry was partly due to opponents’ scouting and scheming for Curry’s tendencies, and the Warriors’ coaches and Steph would need to counter.

But some of it is just Curry’s attack/create mentality. He’s not looking to make crazy passes just to show off, but he is constantly seeking a higher level of basketball, which steepens the risk-reward curve.


SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Gregg Popovich is amazed that folks in San Antonio want to name schools after him. … Dwyane Wade is getting older and he’s getting smarter. … Lance Stephenson was supposed to help the Clippers, remember? What happened? … Toronto must find a way to minimize the absence of Jonas Valanciunas, out with a broken bone in his non-shooting hand, and good luck with that. … Meanwhile, Brandon Jennings is getting close to making his return.

Following Game 1 loss, Nets look to get defensive

By Lang Whitaker,

VIDEO: Recap of Game 1 and a lookahead to Game 2 between the Heat and Nets

MIAMI — After last night’s Game 1 loss at the hands of the Miami Heat, the general feeling in the Brooklyn Nets’ losing locker room was muted. Were they angry? Were they sad?

“Can’t be angry, can’t be frustrated,” said Andray Blatche. “It’s one game. It’s one game of seven.”

The Nets came into the series against the Heat having won all four regular season meetings, and surely they felt as though they were a team to be reckoned in Game 1.

The Heat apparently didn’t get the memo. The Nets were beaten in nearly every important statistical category — rebounds, assists, turnovers, points in the paint, attempts in the restricted area, and, of course, total points, as Miami won 107-86.

Twelve hours later, the Nets took the court at the American Airlines Arena for practice, and if there was one thing they agreed upon, it was that their defense needed a lift in Game 2 if they hoped to get back to their winning ways. Their offense? Sure, it wasn’t perfect, particularly the way they seemed fine with settling for jump shots. But as Deron Williams noted, their offense doesn’t matter if they can’t stop the Heat.

“Our defense wasn’t where it needed to be, that’s the first thing,” Williams said. “You can talk about the offense all you want, but defense is why we lost that game. A lot of mistakes. We need to play better offense, as well, but if we play defense like that we have no shot.”

The Nets need to complement an uptick in aggression with better defense positioning. The Heat seemed to be running layup lines throughout Game 1, getting to the rim at will.

“We have to protect the paint,” said coach Jason Kidd. “We gave up too many paint touches and too many layups. We have to make them a perimeter team and put pressure on them to shoot jump shots and not layups.”

As dominant as Miami was, the Nets were still in the game much of the way. Miami’s lead was just 3 with 8:39 to play in the third before the Heat went on an 18-5 run that broke the game open for good. And it wasn’t even that the Heat were getting and compiling paint appearances on fast breaks — they finished with just 4 fast break points. Miami’s success was fueled by ball movement and player movement, and the Nets just never matched their level of activity.

“We had too many lanes for them,” Blatche said. “We let them do pretty much what they wanted to do. Tomorrow we’ve got to step up to the challenge and be super aggressive on defense.”

“You can’t let the other guys around LeBron and Wade have 15, 17 points,” added Joe Johnson, referencing the performance of Miami players like Ray Allen (19 points), Chris Bosh (15) and Mario Chalmers (12). “To beat this team, you can’t allow that, you can’t have that.”

Being down in a playoff series is nothing knew to most of these Nets players, and not even to this Nets team — they were down 3-2 in the first round to the Toronto Raptors before winning the final two games and the series.

For a team that has been through as many high-profile situations as the Nets have over the past year, one loss does not end a season. Not yet, anyway.

“That’s why we have a Game 2,” Kidd said. “Another opportunity to go at it, and hopefully we can limit those mistakes.”

Desperation may yet make an appearance in this series. But if so, it’s not hanging around the Brooklyn Nets just yet.

After break, Heat avoid rust and find rhythm in Game 1

By Lang Whitaker,

VIDEO: Heat cruise to 107-86 rout of Nets in opener

MIAMI — Heat coach Erik Spoelstra entered the American Airlines Arena interview room 90 minutes before tipoff of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals and plopped down at the table.

“All of our guys are available,” Spoelstra said, by way of a pre-empting any questions about injuries.

The floor was then opened for questions, and for 14 seconds the room was as silent as a wake. Finally, with no queries coming, Spoelstra gave a fist pump as he hopped up and walked out of the room.

Honestly, what was left to be said? The Heat had been doing nothing but talking and tuning into other games on TV for the last week since eliminating the Charlotte Bobcats in four games back on April 28. (The monitors flanking Spoelstra in the interview room still displayed the box score from the Heat’s last home game, Game 2 against the Bobcats played way back on April 23.)

Back in live action, the Heat were happy to let their play do the talking, as they put together a dominant performance, winning Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semis against the Brooklyn Nets going away, 107-86.

If they needed a cautionary tale, they didn’t have far to look: Just one season ago, the Heat also had an eight-day break between the first and second rounds. They took on a Bulls team coming off a draining seven-game series, then lost at home to Chicago, 93-86. If the Heat had had any rust from the layoff, they scraped it away well before tipoff and played Game 1 like they were on the second half of a back-to-back.

“It wasn’t easy,” said Chris Bosh, who finished with 15 points and 11 boards. “I was surprised that we did have good rhythm after such a long break. We did not have that last year. I kept saying all week that we felt that we were going to attack this situation better this time. And I think we did.”

“I think the most important thing was the rhythm that we were in,” said LeBron James, who led the Heat with 22 points. “It seemed like we didn’t take much time off at all as far as our rhythm. Ten turnovers, 22 assists, 52 points in the paint — that’s us playing basketball. We didn’t get to the free throw line a lot, but we got to the paint. After eight days off of not playing a game, I feared the rhythm, but now I don’t have to fear it anymore. After the way we played tonight, that’s a step in the direction we want to keep going in.”

“You could see the ball movement on most possessions — moving it two or three passes to find a better shot,” Spoelstra said. “It’s a little bit more to our rhythm and our momentum on how we like to play.”

The Heat talked about their performance like they were speaking of a percussion concert — rhythm, rhythm, rhythm. To make sure the Heat came out on fire, the Heat players credited the coaching staff for keeping them focused throughout the break by mostly pitting them against each other.

“The coaching staff made sure we … went at it in practice,” Rashard Lewis said with a smile. “We got a lot of conditioning in the first few practices, but the last couple of practices we started scrimmaging, we played up and down. And we’re a competitive bunch. We was going at it. Both teams wanted to win, we did a two-minutes drill a couple of times. As teammates, we went at each other and it was almost like a game atmosphere in the practice gym.”

The Heat played a complete game against Brooklyn. Not only did they make nine 3s, but they dominated the interior. In each of the first two quarters, the Heat attempted 10 shots in the paint, building a 26-10 lead in the stat by halftime. They finished with 52 points in the paint, which accounted for 26 field goals made, two less makes than the Nets attempted in the paint.

“We couldn’t protect the paint there to start the game,” said Nets coach Jason Kidd. “Well … during the whole game, we couldn’t keep them out of the paint. That’s something we have to look at and get better at.”

“Just mistakes,” explained Kevin Garnett, who finished with no points and four rebounds in just 16 minutes. “When we made mistakes, they made us pay for it. Back-cuts, coming to the basket, being very aggressive. We need to tear a page out of their book and be as aggressive next game.”

“I think it started on defense,” said Rashard Lewis. “We get stops and we get out, and we spread the court with our shooters, and it gives those lanes for LeBron and Dwyane [Wade] to drive. I thought early in the game we made sure that guys like LeBron and D-Wade were posting up, and we tried to take advantage of different matchups.

“It helps up get into a good rhythm on the offensive end,” Lewis continued. “Instead of just catching and launching 3s, we attacked their defense, make their defense collapse, and throw it out for open shots or for another drive.”

Not everything was rosy for the Heat. For a team that loves to play with pace, the Heat finished with just four fast-break points, as well as a season-low four steals. But they also finished with just 10 turnovers, three fewer than the Nets. And the Nets got worthy performances from Deron Williams and Joe Johnson, who each finished with 17 points. But they were the only Brooklyn starters to crack double-digits.

Sure, the Nets won four straight against the Heat in the regular season, but after one game in the postseason, the Heat go to sleep Tuesday night holding a one-game lead in their series.

And right now, that’s the only streak that matters.

Morning Shootaround — March 13

Missed a game last night? Wondering what the latest news around the NBA is this morning? The Morning Shootaround is here to try to meet those needs and keep you up on what’s happened around the league since the day turned.

The one recap to watch: The return of Dwight Howard to his old stomping grounds in Orlando had plenty of vitrol, but the Lakers-Magic game itself was lacking in any real on-court spice thanks mostly to Howard’s dominating play. The Heat kept on rolling with an easy victory over the Hawks, sending Miami’s win streak to 19 games. Out West, the Grizz and Mavs are working on their respective playoff pushes (Memphis is now No. 3 in the West; Dallas is only three games behind the No. 8-seeded Lakers). Our pick of the day, though, was the Spurs-Wolves game from Target Center. Yes, this one was a bit of a blowout, but there was a lot worth seeing in the game … particularly the play of Ricky Rubio. The point guard nabbed his first NBA triple-double and gave Wolves fans — who have seen injuries ruin a once-promising season — plenty of the trademark dimes and dribbles we all love Rubio for.


News of the morning

Howard embraces tough environment | So, who won the ‘Melo trade? | D-Will hitting his stride again | Budinger mending; Love next?

Howard thrives in first return to Orlando — The game much of Orlando had circled on their calendar all season turned out to be a blast from the past. Dwight Howard’s return to Florida as a member of the Lakers was one chock full of boos and ill will from Magic fans still seething over Howard’s trade to L.A. after a season-long “Dwightmare” during the 2011-12 campaign. But by the end of the game last night, despite all the heckling Howard took, it was the Magic’s former star who had the last laugh. He finished with 39 points and 16 rebounds as the Lakers won easily, getting a victory that may spur them on to greater things, writes Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports:

The Magic tried to prey on all his insecurities, all his fears, and yet, finally, there was no stopping the self-proclaimed Superman. Over and over, the Magic grabbed Howard, slapped him, wrapped arms around those massive shoulders and dared him to immerse himself in the moment, concentrate and make free throws. The Magic played a Hack-a-Dwight, dared him to stand alone in downtown Orlando and make free throw upon free throw.

Thirty-nine times Howard shot them, 25 times they dropped into the net and ultimately 39 points, 16 rebounds and three blocks punctuated the Lakers’ 106-97 victory over the Magic.

“I needed that to learn how to block a lot of things out, despite the boos and all that stuff,” Howard said.

That’s always the issue with Howard: Where’s his mind? Where’s his focus? What’s his mood? Since the All-Star break, those within the Lakers have declared him transformed. After such a reluctance to embrace the burden that comes with this franchise, Howard has “come with an intensity, a ferocity,” Kobe Bryant told Yahoo! Sports. “He understands that with the Lakers, it’s a championship or nothing.”

From the coaching staff to the players, they think Howard has become a better teammate, more willing to do things big and small necessary to propel the Lakers into contention. Within the Lakers, they believe that Howard is progressing physically because he’s pushing himself harder.

Slowly, surely, his back has provided him with more mobility, explosion. Most mornings, Howard goes for acupuncture on his back, diligently trying to bring it all the way back. Howard has streamlined his personal life, too. He’s leaned on a nutritionist, reshuffled his inner circle with the elimination of a long-time business manager. His circle is tighter, and some think that’s productively narrowed his world.

Before the game, Bryant’s message to Howard was unmistakable: “Kill them,” Kobe told him. What Bryant didn’t want was a conciliatory Howard, the nice guy trying to undo the ill will manufactured upon forcing his departure after eight seasons.

And make no mistake: Bryant tells Howard this, too. That innate desire Howard has to win the popularity contest never works, because ultimately victory will give him all the adulation and affirmation that he wants. These Lakers are a half-game out of the seventh seed in the Western Conference – two games out of sixth – and they’re coming hard now. The Lakers are still imperfect, but they’re coming together because Howard has pulled himself together.

“He wasn’t distracted or down about coming back,” Bryant said. “I think the [free-throw successes] will do wonders for him. For him to be able to make those here, he can make those anywhere.”

Who was the winner in the ‘Melo deal?It has been more than two years since Carmelo Anthony was sent to the New York Knicks as part of a mega-deal that brought Danilo Gallinari (among others) to Denver. Since then, neither the Knicks nor the Nuggets have gotten out of the first round of the playoffs and neither has even gone as far as to win a division title. The Knicks have star power with Anthony in the fold and the Nuggets boast an exciting, up-and-down style out West. All great points, but the folks at ESPN’s Stats and Information dig deeper to see how each team has fared since the deal:

Including the playoffs, the Nuggets have won 14 more games than the Knicks since Anthony’s departure. However, neither team has advanced past the first round in their conference.

Both teams have improved overall since making the trade. Each have been playoff teams and are playing their best basketball this season since the trade.

Diving deeper into the advanced stats, on a per possession basis, both teams have played similarly efficient defense since the trade, each ranking in the middle third of the league.

Despite having one his best scoring seasons in years, Anthony has essentially been the same player in New York as he was in Denver in terms of efficiency and usage percentage overall.

The glaring difference between the two franchises is age. The Knicks are the oldest team in the NBA with an average age of 32.4 while the Nuggets are the fourth youngest team in the NBA at 25.3 years.

The two teams have been going in opposite directions since the New Year. The Nuggets have the second best record in the NBA at 26-7 while the Knicks have gone 17-14. The Nuggets are 19-2 at home and the Knicks are 7-6 on the road.

Williams finding his groove again — When he hit an NBA-record nine 3-pointers in the first half against the Wizards last week, something seemed to be brewing in Deron Williams’ game. The Nets point guard, who has hardly looked like the game-changing player he was in Utah many seasons ago, seemed to be slowly getting back on track. The stats prove the case as Williams, in his last five games, is averaging 25.4 ppg, 9.0 apg and 3.6 rpg, well above his season marks of 18.0 ppg, 7.6 apg and 3.2 rpg. Stefan Bondy of the New York Post dives into how a mended ankle and some solid performances of late have Williams looking like an All-Star again:

Deron Williams has reached that comfort zone, the same one he enjoyed during the height of his days in Utah.

It’s not just his rejuvenated body and rediscovered explosiveness. It’s also his approach. It’s his awareness. He has become the unquestioned leader of the Nets since the All-Star break, the point man calling out plays and taking control of a flowing offense.

“I think he’s got pretty close to free reign,” interim coach P.J. Carlesimo said.

The prevailing notion is the Nets will go as far as their point guard will take them. And this version of Williams is going places.

For all of the 40 minutes he played Tuesday night at Barclays Center, he was the best player on the court in a 108-98 victory. He had 21 points and 13 assists, picking up the slack while Joe Johnson was inactive because of his sore left heel.

It has been a similar story since the break for Williams, who has regained his All-Star form since dropping weight and undergoing another round of cortisone injections into his inflamed ankles. His leadership had been called into question the last two years, mostly because he sulked his way through losing seasons and was blamed for two coaches getting canned.

But the last three weeks have undoubtedly represented Williams’ best stretch as a Net.

Williams called his own plays in Utah under Jerry Sloan, and he has developed into that same steady, calming force lately in Brooklyn. The benefits showed all over Tuesday’s box score.

Five players, including Williams, scored at least 13 points. The Nets, winners of four of their last five, moved within two games of the first-place Knicks in the Atlantic Division.

Williams was the maestro on offense as his team shot 51%.

“I try to tell P.J., at times he starts calling a lot of plays and we have to all turn and look, and it slows down the game, it slows down our rhythm and we don’t flow as well,” Williams said. “Guys get out of rhythm. I have no problems when (Carlesimo’s) calling plays. But at times, when we get it, just let us push it. And then I know how to spread the floor and get everyone involved.”

Budinger cleared for contract drillsInjuries have effectively derailed what was supposed to be a breakthrough season for the Timberwolves as Minnesota has played significant chunks of the season without Ricky Rubio, Kevin Love and Chase Budinger — all three of whom are starters. While Rubio is back (and had a triple-double last night in an upset of the Spurs), the Wolves have been waiting to get Budinger and Love on the court again, and it appears Budinger may be close to that feat. Ray Richardson of the Pioneer Press reports that Budinger has been cleared for contract drills and that the team is also awaiting word on what’s next for Love, too:

The Timberwolves are hoping for a favorable medical report when forward Kevin Love meets Wednesday, March 13, in New York with Dr. Michelle Carson, the physician who performed surgery on Love’s right hand on Jan. 15.

Carson will examine Love’s hand to determine if he’s ready to resume full-contact workouts. Love has been out since refracturing the third and fourth metacarpals in his hand Jan. 3 at Denver. He originally broke the same bones in October while doing knuckle push-ups.

After consulting with Carson, Love is expected to join the Wolves for Friday’s game in Houston.

The Wolves learned Tuesday morning that forward Chase Budinger has been cleared for full-contact work.

Budinger, out since Nov. 10 with a knee injury, received clearance from Dr. James Andrews, who operated on Budinger’s left knee Nov. 13 to repair a torn lateral meniscus ligament.

“I told the doctor what I’ve been doing,” Budinger said. “The knee is progressing well, and I’ve had no swelling or anything like that. He was pleased with that.”

Budinger remained uncertain when he might able to play. He was projected to be out until late March.

ICYMI of the night: You know Brook and Robin Lopez probably did this to each other more than a few times on the NERF hoop as kids …:

Players React to Tragedy on Twitter staff reports

In the wake of the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., NBA players took to Twitter to share their grief and also some thoughts on the unthinkable events.

Another Day, Another Dwight Update

From staff reports

As we mentioned here on Independence Day, the Magic aren’t going to let Dwight Howard dictate his trade destination. Like any NBA front office worth its salt in this new era of superstar trades, Orlando’s brass is going to discuss deals and explore the avenues it can to get the most in return for its All-NBA star.

Granted, Howard’s ideal destination is the budding superteam in Brooklyn, where he could team up with Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Gerald Wallace to form one of the most formidable (on paper) starting lineups in the NBA. But for him to become a Net (or perhaps, a Laker), it’s going to take more than a team-to-team swap to make it happen. This might require a three-team trade if Howard is to end up in a Brooklyn uni or the purple-and-gold ones in Lakerland.

Ken Berger at has the lowdown on the daily Dwight update, where the Magic and Nets are ‘still plugging away’ at a deal:

The Orlando Magic are continuing to explore trade options for Dwight Howard, though the team is in no rush to move the disgruntled superstar despite multiple options remaining in play, has learned.

The Nets and Magic are “still plugging away” with possible Howard trade scenarios, according to a person familiar with the process. “Everything is in play,” said another person connected to the talks, including a possible deal with the Lakers, whose stunning acquisition of Steve Nash Wednesday night may have pushed them onto Howard’s radar as a team with whom he’d sign an extension if traded.

Both the Nets and Lakers, however, may need a third team to facilitate the deal to maximize the cap relief Orlando is seeking in any Howard trade. It isn’t simply about the players and draft picks the Magic would acquire, but also the ability to relieve their future payroll of burdensome contracts such as those of Hedo Turkoglu and Jason Richardson, sources said. (more…)