I found Deron Williams, you guys. I'm not sure where he was before Game 6, but on Friday night, he was pretty easy to spot — he was the dude torching the Toronto Raptors from the right side of the floor.
Brooklyn's oft-maligned $98.8 million point guard continued his series-long trend of playing poorly in Nets losses but well in wins, scoring a team-high 23 points on 8-for-16 shooting, including a 4-for-10 mark from beyond the 3-point arc, to go with five rebounds, four assists, one steal and just two turnovers in 38 minutes of burn to lead the Nets to a must-have 97-83 win that kept their season alive.
Offensive centerpiece Joe Johnson added 17 points and three assists, while veteran forward Paul Pierce did a little bit of everything (12 points, six rebounds, three steals, three assists and a block) to help the Nets force a Game 7 in Toronto on Sunday to determine which squad will move on to face the two-time defending NBA champion Miami Heat in the second round.
Facing elimination, Nets head coach Jason Kidd elected to juggle his rotation. He liked what he saw as his offense caught fire in the furious fourth-quarter comeback that came up just short in Game 5, so he rolled the dice with some of the guys who helped bring Brooklyn back from a monster deficit, and the moves paid off.
Kidd slid reserve Alan Anderson into the starting five in place of Shaun Livingston, betting the always-willing-to-fire-from-deep veteran gunner would be better equipped to take advantage of open perimeter looks when the Raptors doubled down on Joe Johnson in the post ... or, better yet, keep his defender from rushing to double in the first place. He also went away from rookie Mason Plumlee, averaging just over three points and three rebounds in 16.2 minutes per game this series, as the first big man off the bench, opting instead for Andray Blatche, who like Anderson, provided an offensive spark late in Game 5.
Anderson didn't offer much offense, missing all three shots he took in the first quarter, but he came out of the gate crashing the glass (five boards in 9 1/2 minutes) to help Brooklyn's bigs while playing white-on-rice defense on DeMar DeRozan — who, to his credit, still beat it, making tough contested shots early, late and in between en route to a game-high 28. After replacing Kevin Garnett, Blatche gave Kidd big minutes on both ends, protecting the rim with a pair of blocks — yes, this is Andray Blatche I'm talking about — while chipping in four points and three boards.
With more firepower, shotmaking and creativity on the floor, the Raptors had a more difficult time keying in on the Nets' top guns, who feasted. Johnson and Pierce got to the rim at will, each scoring nine points in the opening stanza, while Williams paired a sharp-looking 3 with a graceful twisting layup to help stake Brooklyn to a 15-point advantage after 12 minutes.
The Non-DeRozan Raptors couldn't get anything going early, starting the game with a bevy of awkward and ill-advised shots (a combined 4 for 15 in the opening frame) that seemed the natural outgrowth of flat, stagnant offense. Star point guard and team talisman Kyle Lowry began the game by firing off a 3-pointer from Staten Island with four seconds left on the shot clock that clanged harmlessly. (The play-by-play calls Lowry's cast-off a 31-footer. The play-by-play is lying.)
This felt instructive, a man confidently taking a ridiculous shot as if there weren't real consequences if he missed, because he knew he could get a whole 'nother game of them if he didn't make it. It proved indicative of where the Raptors' offense would go, as he would finish with just 11 points on 4-for-16 shooting, with four turnovers canceling out his four assists, and the Raptors as a team shooting just 38.5 percent from the floor and 7 for 24 from 3-point land.
"Defensively, we helped one another," Pierce told YES Network sideline reporter Sarah Kustok after the game. "We pressured the ball. We took Lowry completely out of the game. DeRozan, he's a tough cover, you know? He's an All-Star this year, he makes a lot of tough shots. But I just thought that defensively we were consistent all night, and on offense, we really moved the ball and got good shots."
Another move that paid off? Kidd's Thursday complaints about the officiating in Game 5. The Raptors were whistled for seven fouls in the first quarter, with mismatch-creating/havoc-wreaking young center Jonas Valanciunas picking up two quick ones that sent him to the bench before he'd developed any kind of rhythm, and Brooklyn going 6 for 7 from the opening stripe before Toronto had any feel for the game. The final free-throw numbers wound up leveling out — 19 for 25 for Brooklyn, 16 for 20 for Toronto, fueled largely by DeRozan's persistent rim attacks — but in terms of setting a tone and getting off to a good start, that sure seemed like $25,000 well spent for Kidd.
The Nets kept up the offensive pressure all night, continuing to work through Johnson in the post and in the middle of the floor, attack Toronto's doubles and traps with quick ball movement and work to get high-percentage looks, outscoring the Raptors 48-32 in the paint and shooting 63.2 percent in the lane.
"We knew that they were going to double Joe a lot," Pierce said after the game. "So we swung the ball and we said, 'Let's not settle for the 3-point shot. Let's drive on the second swing of the ball and get to the paint, try to get layups,' and I thought we did."
Brooklyn put the hammer down after halftime, with Williams bouncing back from an early third-quarter ankle injury ...
... to knock down a 3-pointer and set Pierce up for one, pushing the Nets' lead to 26 at the 7:39 mark of the third. The Raps would chop that lead down, with the Nets going cold in the second half while DeRozan continued to attack and get to the line, eventually getting as close as 10 after a Lowry 3-ball made it 86-76 with 5:02 remaining in the third. But two nights after hanging 115 on the Nets, Dwane Casey's club didn't have enough offense left in the tank to make one final kick, and Williams — he of the well-established fourth-quarter struggles — put the final nail in Toronto's coffin by draining a triple that gave Brooklyn a 13-point lead with 1:13 remaining.
"It's simple," said Pierce when asked about the team's mindset as the action shifts back to the Air Canada Centre. "It's win or go home. There's no tomorrow. Game 7 is it. Mentally, we've just got to come in with the same focus and carry it over from the last quarter up in Toronto to today, and carry it out there for Game 7."
Blatche, who'd begun the day by guaranteeing a victory in Game 6 and backed up his talk with eights points and seven boards in 21 minutes off the bench, was a bit bolder.
I think the Raptors might have something to say about that, if Lowry and company can find their offensive rhythm by Sunday afternoon. Hey, maybe Raptors fans should put up "MISSING" posters outside the ACC. Sure seemed to work wonders in Brooklyn on Friday.
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