As time winded down on the United Center scoreboard Saturday afternoon, it appeared Deron Williams would headline Game 4 as the star who reasserted himself as the aggressor in the boxing match of a series between the Nets and Bulls.
Through the game’s first 45 minutes, Williams had dazzled the Chicago crowd with 30 points, nine assists and five made 3-pointers to help the Nets to a 109-95 lead. But as the Nets’ lead began to dwindle at the hands of Nate Robinson’s historic shooting performance, Williams was nowhere to be found.
His disappearing act continued into the first overtime, again in the second overtime, and by the time the Bulls had all but locked up their eventual 142-134 triple-overtime victory to take a 3-1 series lead, Williams’ performance went from one of his all-time bests to one he’d like soon like to forget.
Williams was shut out in the final three minutes of the fourth quarter, and played all 15 minutes in overtime. But in that span of 18 minutes he had just two points on 1-of-8 shooting and one assist to one turnover.
“We had a lot of mistakes in the fourth quarter,” Williams said. “When you go up 14 with three minutes left in the fourth quarter, you’ve got to find a way to put a game away.”
Midway through the fourth quarter it seemed Williams had put the game away.
On two separate occasions—once in the third quarter and again late in the fourth—it seemed Williams had put the game away. Out of a timeout the 6-foot-4 point guard connected on an 18-footer and, on the next trip down, drained a 3-pointer to extend the Nets’ lead from one to six, 77-71. The Nets used Williams’ hot shooting to take an eight-point lead into the fourth quarter, 84-76.
Again in the fourth quarter, his heroics took over. A quick 9-5 run from the Bulls had the home team within seven, 102-95, but a 3-pointer, a rebound and quick outlet pass for an assist to Brook Lopez all in one sequence pushed the lead back out to twelve.
One play later he blocked a Kirk Hinrich jumper and found a streaking Gerald Wallace, whose dunk gave the Nets their biggest lead of the quarter at 14, right before Robinson’s heroics began.
Despite his lull at the end of the fourth quarter, Williams had a chance to win the game at the end of regulation, but a short jumper hit the back iron and began the first of three overtimes.
“I thought that was—I couldn’t shoot it better,” Williams said. “Looked good, felt good, just rimmed out.”
Just as the Nets’ offensive struggles Thursday weren’t all self-induced, Williams’ lack of production in the extra periods were, at least to some degree, caused by the Bulls’ stingy defense.
Like counterpart Kirk Hinrich did in Game 2, when Williams scored just eight points on 1-of-9 shooting, Hinrich again was magnificent as a distributor and pesky around Williams, often resulting in Joe Johnson or Brook Lopez setting up the offense from the low block.
“We had it, they had it, then it went back and forth,” Lopez said. “A few plays went their way, but I can’t fault their guys tonight.”
And while Williams was ineffective on the offensive end, he still had the chance to make an impact defensively. In the middle of Robinson’s incredible 23-point fourth quarter, Brooklyn coach P.J. Carlesimo switched Williams onto Robinson, leaving Johnson on Hinrich. But, to no fault of Williams’, there wasn’t anyone who was shutting down Robinson one-on-one. But how he and the Nets went about trying that, Williams said, could have been different.
“I think when somebody gets hot like that we need to trap him and get the ball out of his hands, do something. Just give him a different look,” Williams said. “We didn’t do that. We lost this game, we were up 14 and, like I said, we made a lot of mistakes.”
The box score will show Game 4 as Williams’ best statistical game of the series—even his seven turnovers can be chalked up to staying aggressive in 58 minutes rather than carelessness—but his inability to produce when his team needed him in the extra periods felt more like his Game 2 clunker than anything.
“They just took it to us. When Nate got hot, he didn’t miss a shot. We couldn’t find an answer for him.”
That answer could have been Williams, but instead he and the Nets leave Chicago, facing elimination, with nothing but questions.