Last summer, Deron Williams was the No. 1 free-agent point guard on the market. Williams is from the suburbs of Dallas. The Dallas Mavericks had a bunch of salary cap space and looked badly in need of a point guard who could score. Mavericks star Dirk Nowitzki flat-out said he wanted Williams to "run the show" in Dallas; generally speaking, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has (very smartly) been in the business of doing whatever he can to keep his big German Hall of Famer happy and make him successful, so many ranked Dallas among Williams' most likely free-agent destinations.
But then Cuban chose to tape an episode of his reality show rather than meet with Williams, to which the point guard took offense, and wound up re-signing with the Brooklyn Nets, who'd been pedal-to-the-metal in their pursuit of Williams from the second they imported him from Utah (and could offer him a maximum-level five-year, $98.8 million contract).
After the sides went their separate ways, Cuban said he felt the Mavs were in a better competitive position having not committed max money to Williams, which allowed Dallas to fill multiple roster holes this season while maintaining long-term financial flexibility.
The future view makes sense, but with Dallas floundering outside the Western Conference playoff chase and Brooklyn fighting for a top-four seed in the East, the short-term's been fairly painful ... and Williams was intent on bringing even more pain when Brooklyn visited the American Airlines Center on Wednesday night for the first time this season.
He didn't do it alone — Brook Lopez's 15-point first quarter kept the sluggish Nets close when Dallas came out of the gate hot, shooting 61.9 percent in the opening 12 minutes, and reserve Andray Blatche's 14-point second quarter helped Brooklyn get level at 51 by halftime. In the third quarter, though, Williams started to make Dallas pay.
He worked Dallas defender Mike James, making strong cuts off the ball to lose James for layups and backing him down in the post for short jumpers; when fellow Maverick triggerman Darren Collison entered the game, Williams beat him off the ball, too. He attacked in the high screen game, either clearing room for Lopez to roll to the rim for layups/fouls, splitting the double to get there himself or (as he did late in the third quarter) compromising the defense with a sharp pocket pass to a diving Blatche, who redirected to Lopez for an open jumper on the baseline. He stroked in-rhythm spot-up jumpers as a safety-valve/outlet from teammates' post-ups.
Lopez was a perfect 6 for 6 in the frame for a team-high 14 points as Brooklyn began to pull away, but Williams' influence — and Dallas' inability to match up with him at the point — put the Mavs' defense in a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't inside-out situation. And then, in the fourth quarter, it was Williams' show.
He had the hesitation move working, making the dribble dance and forcing Collison to play a step off him, which Williams took advantage of by splashing midrange Js. Dallas coach Rick Carlisle switched the larger, stronger O.J. Mayo onto Williams; that didn't matter. After he'd hit five straight shots, Dallas collapsed on him as he dribbled toward the lane from the left elbow, with Nowitzki coming over to help and trap ... and Williams calmly rose up and fired a bullet pass to Lopez, who'd smartly cut under the basket from the right block to the left, for an open layup.
After Dallas had gotten within six, Williams again beat James off the dribble to the lane, and while his layup didn't fall, the attention he commanded left Lopez alone for an offensive rebound and putback dunk. And with the lead at 10, Williams put up a deep 3 over James' outstretched arm to extend it to 13 with just over two minutes left and put the proverbial final nail in the Mavericks' coffin.
Williams finished with 31 points in the Nets' 113-96 win, with 26 of them coming in the second half (13 in each quarter) on 11 for 18 shooting — 4 for 5 in the restricted area, 4 for 6 from midrange, 2 for 5 from 3 (plus one missed beyond-half-court heave). He also finished with six assists, all leading directly to layups and dunks; five went to Lopez, creating 10 of the All-Star center's season-high 38 points.
It was a really good game and a sensational close for Williams, who's continued his dynamic post-juice-cleanse-and-ankle-shots play. He's averaging 23.9 points and 7.6 assists per game since the All-Star break, scoring 6.3 more points per 36 minutes of playing time than he did before the break, and while his shot selection hasn't changed a ton — he's taking about as many shots in the restricted area post-All-Star (28.5 percent of his tries) as he was before (28 percent), though he has been a bit less active in midrange (down from 20.4 percent of his shots to 18 percent) and more eager to fire 3s (up from 38.2 percent of his looks to 41) — he's shooting significantly better from just about everywhere.
Here's what Williams' shot chart looked like before the All-Star Game (remember, red's bad, yellow's OK but not very good, green's good):
And here's what it's looked like since:
Williams is shooting 48 percent from the field and 45.4 percent from long range over his last 15 games, without suffering a big drop-off in his facilitating or a big uptick in his turnovers; beyond the numbers, he just looks great, too, much more fast, fluid, quick and confident than he was during his injury-plagued start to the season. After months of fits and starts, Williams is finally playing like a top-tier point guard, and that's a big reason why the Nets find themselves just a game behind the New York Knicks for the Atlantic Division lead and two games up on the Atlanta Hawks for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
Seeing D-Will look this sharp must be nice for Nets fans ... and, while he might not admit it, probably stings Mr. Cuban just a teeny-tiny bit.
Video via The Brooklyn Game.
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