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Deron Williams, Joe Johnson shake off doubters, give Nets series lead

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DeMar DeRozan (left) struggled to keep Joe Johnson (right) from getting to his spots in Game 3.

NEW YORK -- The reaction to Deron Williams and Joe Johnson during actor Michael K. Williams' -- Flatbush-native -- pregame introductions was lukewarm on Friday, though it wasn't much better for anyone else. Brooklyn has one of the least intimidating home court advantages in the NBA, an undeniable truth that can be chalked up to a city, a borough that is still trying to make a connection to the franchise.

But it was a reminder of this: For a couple of guys making a whole truckload of money, Deron Williams and Joe Johnson don't get a lot of respect.

Make a list of the top five point guards in the NBA. Is Williams on it? Is he sixth? Seventh? It's been two years since Williams made an All-Star team, four since he led a team out of the first round of the playoffs. Remember when the there was a legitimate debate over who was the better point guard, Williams or Chris Paul? That debate seems like a lifetime ago.

In recent years Johnson has been known as much for his salary -- $21.5 million this season, the sixth highest in the NBA -- as his play. The Hawks dumped him for spare parts in 2012 and no player's inclusion on the All-Star roster this season evoked more anger than Johnson's. Kyle Lowry's buddies are still ticked off.

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Yet there they were on Friday combining for 51 points and ten assists in the Nets 102-98 win over the Raptors in a critical Game 3, powering the Nets to a 2-1 series lead.

When Brooklyn needed a bucket, there was Johnson, breaking down the defense, tossing soft floaters over outstretched defenders. When the Nets needed a floor general, there was Williams, handing out eight assists (against just two turnovers), expertly operating a Nets offense that connected on nearly 50 percent of its shots.

"They are two great one-on-one players," Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. "There is no one guy that's can guard them by themselves. We have to do a better job of making sure we're getting help there quicker."

So much of Brooklyn's offense depends on Johnson and Williams, so much of its championship hopes pinned on their shoulders. The season-ending injury to Brook Lopez forced the Nets to a small lineup, forced Johnson to small forward, forced the offense to count on on consistency from the perimeter. Johnson is often the primary option, "Our bread and butter," said Shaun Livingston. Brooklyn has depended on him to deliver, and he has, brilliantly. DeMar DeRozan is one of the NBA's brightest young stars, but in this series Johnson has been overwhelming.

"He's a big body," DeRozan said. "It's tough once he gets you down there and gets his hip on you. His floater, you really can't do much to it."

A year ago Brooklyn was heading toward an embarrassing seven-game opening round loss to Chicago. That was a heartless bunch and Williams will admit that team lacked chemistry between two of its top talents.

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"It took us a little bit of time to figure that out," Williams said. "We are two guys that have had the ball in our hands a lot. We had to learn where each other is going to be. We have great chemistry right now. It's fun to play with him."

This was the series the Nets wanted, a series many in the organization believed offered the best chance to win. For all the superlative talents of Lowry and DeRozan, the Raptors young backcourt had just 13 games of playoff experience -- all from Lowry, all from one year in Houston -- between them. This was a series Johnson and Williams could control, Brooklyn reasoned, and thus far the duo has rewarded that faith.

Up in the series, one home win away from pushing Toronto to the brink, this Brooklyn team continues to inch towards meeting its lofty expectations. With owner Mikhail Prokhorov watching from a suite, his $190 million investment delivered. Paul Pierce (18 points) made big shots, Andray Blatche (12 points) provided crucial minutes and first round surprise Mason Plumlee injected energy off the bench. A late surge by Toronto made it interesting but there in the waning seconds was Johnson, coolly knocking down two free throws to seal another win.

The free fall of Indiana has exposed one conference titan and Brooklyn already knows Miami is a team they can play with. The disappointing ending of last season and the horrific start to this one seem more and more like distant memories. With each game, each win, the Nets confidence grows.

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On Friday's SI Now, SI.com NBA blogger Rob Mahoney talks about the Indiana Pacers' playoff struggles and if benching Roy Hibbert is the answer.

"This is a different team," Williams said. "It's a totally different feeling. I think we are poised to make a run."

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