The old adage in professional sports is to be playing your best when the playoffs roll around. For Brooklyn point guard Deron Williams, he's making sure that's the case for himself and his Nets, which took a 1-0 lead on the Bulls Friday night at home with 109-86 victory. He'll look to continue his hot streak when the two teams meet up again tonight in Game 2 of this first-round Eastern Conference playoff series.
When Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov was able to keep the free agent away from his hometown Dallas Mavericks last off-season -- giving Williams a five-year deal worth $98 million -- it marked the first change of scenery for the 6-foot-3 point guard since he was traded to New Jersey during the 2010-11 season. But with the franchise moving to Brooklyn and Williams having a handful of options, it was he who decided to become the face of the relocated, new-look Nets.
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While Prokhorov did pony up in the offseason to acquire Joe Johnson, Gerald Wallace and re-sign Brook Lopez -- all after striking out in the infamous Dwight Howard sweepstakes -- the general consensus still was the Nets would go as far as Williams would take them. For the first three months that seemed like a losing recipe.
The Nets were just 16-15 when the calendar turned to 2013 -- head coach Avery Johnson had been fired three days before then -- and Williams, the franchise player expected to boost the team to Miami Heat-like levels, was averaging 16.9 points on a career-worst 40.3 percent shooting. That's not what anyone had in mind when he decided to hang around to see the franchise's transformation through.
But when P.J. Carlesimo took over Williams began to settle down. He boosted his averages to 18.3 points on 45.6 percent shooting and 8.3 assists in January, and the Nets won 10 of 11 to begin the month, including wins over Oklahoma City, Indiana and New York. The Nets went just 15-12 over the final two months -- still good enough for the No. 4 seed in the watered-down East -- but in that span Williams continued to improve in his new surroundings and with his new teammates, averaging 21.6 points on almost 47 percent shooting and 2.6 3-pointers per game in February and March.
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So while his season numbers (18.9 points, 7.7 assists) were below his career averages most of the season, his stellar production down the stretch had him surging into the first round against the Bulls, something Tom Thibodeau's group saw first-hand Friday night.
Williams was near-perfect in Game 1, scoring 22 points on 9-of-15 shooting, adding seven assists and three steals in 35 minutes. Fifteen of those points came in a first half that saw the Nets lead by 25, a 24-minute span when the visitors had no answer as the 28-year-old Williams drove by defenders, finished in traffic and was accurate from beyond the arc (2-for-3).
Making matters worse -- and more difficult for Thibodeau -- is that Williams' counterpart, Kirk Hinrich, is battling a left-thigh bruise. He should play tonight but likely won't be functioning at full-strength, meaning the Bulls may need to help on Williams and let players such as Johnson and Wallace beat them from the outside. It's a pick-your-poison tactic, but if the last two months and one playoff game have proven, it's that the Nets are going as far as Williams' efficiency will take them.
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Tune into Comcast SportsNet tonight at 6:30 p.m. for Bulls Pregame Live with Mark Schanowski, Sidney Green and Will Perdue, and stick around after for Postgame Live. Get interactive all night on social media by checking out Bulls Pulse, and use #BullsTalk to join the conversation.