Thursday's matchup between the Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Clippers — and, by extension, the game-within-the-game duel between forever-tethered Class of '05 point guards Deron Williams and Chris Paul — didn't start out so hot for D-Will. Not only did CP3 score eight points during the game's opening quarter to Williams' one as the visiting Clippers jumped out to an early lead, but he did so while eliciting oohs and ahhs from Williams' own home crowd:
While that particular drop to the deck wasn't really all that big a deal — Williams stepped on teammate Brook Lopez's foot to precipitate his fall (though D-Will did joke after the game, correctly, that he'd still probably wind up on lowlight reels anyway) — the gap between the two guards' early-game performance sparked a pretty common question from many viewers:
Hey, remember when "Chris Paul or Deron Williams?" was a thing?
— Robert Silverman (@BobSaietta) December 13, 2013
It does seem like it's been a while, doesn't it? Back before their respective trades and mega-max contracts, when Paul and Williams kept colliding head-to-head in New Orleans Hornets vs. Utah Jazz contests played more for late-night League Pass rabids than captive prime-time TNT audiences, this was a real debate — for the first five years of their careers, the per-minute scoring and assist numbers were in the same ballpark, the shooting percentages were largely in line, and while the advanced stats (and many committed observers) favored Paul's performance, the head-to-head record, one-on-one battles and postseason success pointed toward Williams. Paul was quicker and perhaps more purely gifted, but Williams was bigger, stronger and perhaps better-built for the long-haul grind of working toward a championship. This was a thing people argued.
Then Deron headed east to one of the worst teams in the league, hurt his right wrist, started missing 60 percent of his shots, struggled his way to a coaching change, and correctly identified himself as unworthy of All-Star consideration. He'd eventually get back in the swing of things thanks to a juice cleanse and ankle shots and play like a monster for a couple of months, but all that time spent scuffling took him out of the elite-point-guard conversation. An inability to push his team past the MASH-unit Chicago Bulls into the second round of the playoffs didn't help; beginning this season with renewed ankle woes didn't, either.
Paul's had his postseason struggles, too — they go by the names "The San Antonio Spurs," "The Memphis Grizzlies" and "Vinny Del Negro" — but they've been overshadowed by the consistently All-NBA-and top-five-in-MVP-voting-level play that has followed his cross-country move. He elevated a previously moribund franchise to its first consecutive playoff berths in two decades, its first-ever division title, a much more positively reviewed coaching change and an expectation of, rather than hope for, serious title contention. Nobody doubts that Chris Paul can be the best player on a championship team; just about everybody doubts that Deron Williams can. This isn't a thing people argue, and the first 12-plus minutes of Thursday's game only reinforced that.
But something happened in the second quarter, before CP3 and the Clips could score another victory for conventional wisdom: Deron started to get loose.
Paul came back at Williams as you knew he would, following Deron's long balls with jumpers of his own, but Williams answered right back, scoring 10 points in the final three minutes of the second quarter to give Brooklyn a 12-point lead at intermission and get the Barclays Center faithful to break out the Brooklyn chant without artificial instigation or hipster irony. It was actually exciting.
Williams wasn't torrid throughout, but he didn't need to be — Brooklyn not only staved off its typical third-quarter-collapsing tendencies, but instead increased its advantage to 21 points by the end of three thanks to a hail of jumpers by Joe Johnson and some surprising late-quarter cooking from Andray Blatche. That gave Williams the entire fourth quarter off, and gave him a not-so-eye-popping final line of 15 points on 4 for 9 shooting, five rebounds and four assists in 27 minutes in the Nets' 102-93 win over Doc Rivers' crew.
The Nets have now won three straight games since consecutive blowout losses to the Denver Nuggets and New York Knicks and have looked much more like an honest-to-goodness competitor in the last two over the Clippers and the Atlantic Division-leading Boston Celtics. It's no secret what's changed and sparked the sudden uptick in those last two games, as Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce told reporters, including Howard Beck of Bleacher Report, on Thursday:
“Deron,” Garnett said. “Deron’s play is just dictating how we’re coming out and starting games. He’s pushing the pace, he’s directing, he’s leading. He’s being Deron Williams. I really feel like that’s the difference.”
Pierce said, “We look like a whole different team now with him out there.” [...]
“It’s a totally different team with D-Will over there,” Paul said. “He looks healthy, he’s playing [...] They go as he goes.”
He's only been back from his latest ankle injury for two games, but in those performances — 25 on 10 for 16 shooting against Boston, the evil crossovers, quick first steps and wrist-snapping follow-through against the Clippers — Williams has reminded us that he can be an awful lot more than the underwhelming $98 million captain of a sinking ship. There's an awful long way for him to go to re-enter that "top point guards in the game" discussion, but if he keeps this up, one shakedown, swish and win at a time, he might once again make himself someone people argue about. For a Nets team facing a pretty steep uphill climb back to relevance, that's something, at least.
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