Brooklyn Nets point guard Deron Williams came into Game 4 of his team's first-round series with the Atlanta Hawks as one of the great disappoinments of the 2015 postseason. Once considered one of the three best point guards in the NBA, Willliams scuffled to two points (and and several game-deciding mistakes) in a Game 2 loss and just three points (plus a benching over the game-deciding final 16 minutes) in Brooklyn's otherwise impressive Game 3 victory. Monday's contest at the Barclays Center loomed as not just a chance for the Nets to even the series at 2-2, but a pivotal game in the three-time All-Star and max-contract player's career.
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Williams answered the call on Monday with one of his finest games in recent memory, putting up a game-high 35 points (13-of-25 FG, 7-of-11 3FG), seven assists, and three steals to lead the Nets to a series-tying 120-115 win in overtime. Williams missed a potential winner on Brooklyn's final possession of regulation but was otherwise terrific in crunch time, knocking down several tough shots in a back-and-forth fourth quarter and providing a steady hand at the point throughout. After two series-opening wins against what looked like an inferior opponent, the Hawks now find themselves needing a win at home in Tuesday's Game 5 to maintain control of the series and avoid an unanticipated first-round struggle.
It's tough to undersell the quality and surprise of Williams's performances following his nightmarish Games 2 and 3. That version looked like a shell of the dynamic star who became one of the most coveted players of the 2012 free-agent class. By contrast, Monday's D-Will looked every bit the game-changer who burst onto the national scene as a member of the Utah Jazz in 2008 and beyond. Game 4 served as a reminder that Williams was a player who once inspired debates as to whether he or Chris Paul was the best point guard of his generation:
This showing could very well be a basketball version of the dead cat bounce, especially given that Williams has been far from spectacular for at least the last year before hitting what is likely rock bottom in the previous two games. In the isolation of Game 4, though, this was a fantastic and necessary game for a Nets team that would have had very little chance of coming back from 3-1 down with two games to play in Atlanta.
That's partially because the Hawks vastly improved their offensive output after shooting just 35.6 percent from the field and 6-of-20 on threes in Game 3. The turnaround started early as Atlanta went for 51 points in the first half on their way to a six-point halftime lead. While that score doesn't stand out for a squad 102.5 points per game this season, it was meaningful given their struggles in Game 3 and general difficulties in reproducing the same impressive motion-based, ball-sharing offense that took the East by storm this season. Their 82 points over the first three quarters and 48.4 percent shooting on the night were notable for a Hawks team looking to get back to an elite level.
Unfortunately for Atlanta, their defense was far from tremendous, especially when it came to defending the perimeter. Brooklyn did its part by making some difficult shots, but a 14-of-31 mark from beyond the arc (including quality rates for everyone but the 0-of-4 Jarrett Jack) points to significant breakdowns for the visitors. They also had trouble defending center Brook Lopez (26 points on 11-of-19 FG) for the fourth time in as many games. The Nets simply should not be scoring 75 points in the second half and overtime no matter the circumstances.
That said, the Hawks were the better team for much of this game and easily could have won in regulation. Down 104-102 with 24 seconds on the clock, the Hawks got a surprisingly easy game-tying basket on this dunk from Paul Millsap:
Williams erred on the next possession by taking and missing a turnaround jumper with way too much time left on the clock, handing the Hawks a chance at a winner with only 6.5 seconds remaining. But the Hawks couldn't even get off a shot on the play after quality Nets defense, sending the game to overtime. Atlanta continued its mediocre form in the extra period as Kyle Korver missed all four of his three-point attempts (including three on one possession due to two DeMarre Carroll offensive rebounds). The end result confirmed what had become clear in the first three games, including the two wins — the Hawks do not look like a No. 1 seed right now. They have yet to put together a consistently impressive performance as a team and have succeeded largely on individual successes.
The Hawks shocked everyone this season in winning 60 games, but they are now facing the unique adversity of avoiding an upset as a top seed. The Nets have more talented than their record suggests, and they can be a formidable opponent when Williams and other disappointment play at a star level. No matter the specifics of the challenge, though, the Hawks need to show well in Game 5. They played like a title contender for most of this season, but it's now time to prove that they really are one.
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