BROOKLYN, N.Y.—Before Deron Williams could put forward one of his best performances as a member of the Brooklyn Nets, he first had to convince himself he was still capable of playing basketball at an elite level.
Williams, who admitted he has a tendency to get down on himself, was fresh off a media barrage that ended with Nets coach Lionel Hollins and multiple teammates defending him. For Williams, the storyline was familiar. He fought off injury and played through three rough outings to start his team's first-round series against the Atlanta Hawks. In response, Williams needed to shield himself from a mound of criticism.
Williams even lowered his own expectations. In fact, they changed so severely that his only pregame goal was to finish the night free of injury. If the weight of that burden got Williams down, you couldn't tell during his 35-point outburst in a 120-115 overtime win that tied the Nets' series with the Hawks at 2-2 on Monday.
"Honestly, when I was shooting around before the game, in the back [of my mind] I was just hoping I could get through the game," Williams said. "I was definitely sore, but once the game started adrenaline kicked in and I felt pretty good. Hopefully I feel pretty good tomorrow after the 45 minutes, and that will be the tell."
Williams added five rebounds and seven assists to his 35-point effort in 45 minutes of play. It was vintage Williams as he flashed a number of magical moments that harkened back to the player who was considered one of the NBA's best point guards.
Williams outpaced his start to the series, and his own expectations, by miles on this night. Through the first three contests of the series, he had only produced 15 points on 7-of-18 shooting. Williams didn't shoot well, but he wasn't aggressive to score, either.
After fighting through chronic injuries for years, Williams can only flash the brilliance he once displayed on a nightly basis in spurts. Williams's teammates are aware of his past exploits, and they pushed him to be aggressive in Game 4. Williams said he talked with Jarrett Jack about the law of averages. Based on Williams' series thus far, they surmised he was due. But they couldn't have assumed he would perform on this level.
[daily_cut.nba]Williams morphed into the player Hawks guard Kyle Korver remembered playing with in Utah years ago, and there was no way for Atlanta to counter such an unexpected game from the player billed more as the Nets' burden than star.
The transformation started slow. Williams hit two three-pointers to start the first quarter, then he knocked down a midrange look, and another three. The avalanche was in motion. It would continue to roll on unstopped.
"It definitely helped to get my confidence going early, see a couple shots go in, because they haven't gone in the last couple games before this," Williams said. "I just wanted to start out being aggressive. I pretty much was able to sustain that the rest of the game."
Williams finished the first half with 13 points on 5-of-10 shooting, but could he keep it up? This was Deron Williams and these were the Brooklyn Nets, after all.
Doubt melted away as Williams hit big shots in the fourth quarter. His night hit an unlikely peak when the former three-time All-Star circled around a pick appearing lost as the shot clock winded down. He dribbled right, circled left, and finally went back right before he turned to face the basket and launched a shot from 27 feet out. His shot gave the Nets a 104-102 lead.
"I don't even know what happened," Williams said. "I just know the clock was winding down and I had to get a shot off. It felt good as soon as it left my hands."
Nets coach Lionel Hollins reacted along with the crowd. When asked how he responded to Williams's prayer, Hollins answered appropriately, "I said thank God. We needed it, and it was excellent."
The Nets weren't out of the weeds just yet, but Williams had responded to a tough time in the best way possible: with buckets. Williams scored 16 fourth-quarter points on 6-of-10 shooting. He was 4-of-4 from the three-point line.
Brooklyn not only endured the Atlanta's best punch at this point, but swung back. Brooklyn entered into the fourth quarter trailing by eight points and worked its way back, with sloppy possessions from each team leading to overtime. The Nets outscored the Hawks, 16-11, in overtime and narrowly walked away with a win.
In the end, Williams looked out at a media herd and thanked his teammates and coaches. It's cliché to do so under most circumstances, but this felt somehow more genuine. Hollins, Jack, and Joe Johnson had all spoken out on Williams's behalf, and he appreciated their support when he was at his worst.
"I thanked him today after the game," Williams said of Hollins. "It means a lot when you're struggling like that and your coach comes out and defends you like that. It says a lot about him, how much he cares about not only me but this team and our players."
Only moments before, Hollins had spoken on Williams' behalf yet again.
"The kid has overcome a lot of adversity," Hollins said. "He's had a lot of adversity with the injuries and the negativity around his name. For him to come out showed a lot of character to put on a performance like that, especially when we needed it, because without that performance I don't know if we get out of here with a win."