NEW YORK -- Deron Williams entered the postgame presser on Friday night in Brooklyn gingerly. He took a step up to the podium, audibly groaning as he did so.
It was supposed to be a crowning moment for Williams, who scored a team-high 23 points, played 38 minutes, and drove a Nets attack in a 97-83 victory that simply wasn't close. The questions were generally fawning.
It was the only time in the series these two teams didn't look evenly matched, a series won by the Nets by a single game on Sunday, that game decided by a single point.
But even Game 6 was divided into two segments. There was the first two-plus quarters, when Williams did most of his damage and all of his attacking the basket. Then came a scary play, with Williams twisting his ankle, going to the floor hard, and Kevin Garnett calling for help to get Williams to his feet.
He stayed in the game, but a familiar Williams returned, one who brings the ball slowly up the court, dumps to a teammate, and heads out to the three-point line for a pass that may or may not come. Williams, signed by the Nets to be the centerpiece of a championship team, instead makes himself a bystander.
He's done so during some of the biggest moments of his two years in Brooklyn. He did so on Sunday afternoon in Toronto. And it nearly cost him a second Game 7 in as many tries.
The Brooklyn Nets are a threat to the Miami Heat, who they'll play in the second round beginning Tuesday night in Miami. But the Williams who showed up for much of Game 6, for that epic fourth-quarter comeback in Game 5, not to mention most of Game 3, needs to be there. He isn't always, and exactly why is puzzling to nearly everyone.
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There's no real mystery about what the Nets need from Deron Williams, and both Williams and his coach, Jason Kidd, talk about it often.
When the Nets have a Williams driving to the basket, getting into the paint, a number of important things happen. A collapsing defense opens up the Nets' perimeter shooters. The attention to Williams makes it easier for Joe Johnson to get his opportunities in the flow of the offense, rather than through pick-your-poison isolations and double teams, which is how the offense ultimately functioned in Game 7. Mismatches created, and the slow but smart Nets around Williams know precisely how to take advantage.
As Raptors coach Dwane Casey pointed out after Game 6, the breakdowns even help the Nets grab more offensive rebounds. A team who is already winning the turnover game as a means of producing more possessions becomes nearly unbeatable when you add easy second-chance points to their attack.
I asked Kidd what he needed from Williams, prior to the Game 6 win Friday.
"Well, we've always talked about when the ball touches the paint," Kidd said. "I thought the ball was touching the paint a lot there in the fourth quarter, from Deron, from Joe out, guys who were on the floor.
"It's just understanding, being the aggressor in this series. Whichever team's been the aggressor has kind of ended up winning the game."
Kidd obviously wasn't going to attack his starting point guard -- that would be foolish coaching and player management -- but the way the Nets are the "aggressor", as he put it, is by Williams pushing the ball up the floor, Williams exploiting seams in the defense, Williams going to the hoop. The difference between Deron Williams engaged, and Deron Williams as virtual bystander, looks almost like a switch has been flipped.
There are complications with Williams. Exactly how physically sound he was after suffering that twisted ankle during Game 6, no one can say. And 36 hours later, in a Game 7 where Williams took eight shots, total, and spent very little time getting to the basket, how much of his reticence came from injury, and how much from some inner decision, no one can, or should say.
It would be easier to come to the conclusion that Williams just wasn't physically right if we hadn't seen him make this conscious decision to withdraw a few times in this series alone, not to mention last year in the playoff series against the Bulls.
"Well I know, myself, I needed to be more aggressive after the last two losses," Williams said. "In the three games we've won, I've been really aggressive, getting into the paint."
So why does that stop? How is that anything other than the constant process for Deron Williams and the Brooklyn Nets?
I still remember sitting in the press conference Williams held after last season's Game 7 loss to the Bulls. In the fourth quarter of a game where Joe Johnson was gamely trying to play through plantar fasciitis, and extended Nets lineups featured both Reggie Evans and a slumping Gerald Wallace essentially meant the Nets had two offensive options on the floor in Williams and Brook Lopez. And yet, Williams chose not to push the advantage he still had, as the best player on the floor, time and again backing off. He spoke about not forcing things. He did so after acknowledging, earlier in that very same series, that his passivity had caused the Nets to lose on multiple occasions.
"I knew what my team needed me to do, and I decided to come out early and establish that," Williams said following Game 6 Friday night.
He sure didn't on Sunday. And for most of the game, it didn't matter. The Nets, as Williams pointed out as well, are a different team this year.
Joe Johnson, for one thing, is healthy. He took 25 shots on Sunday, scored 11 straight points at a critical juncture in the game. The Nets were not the faster-paced offense that ran through the league for most of the season's second half, after a 10-21 start. But they'd found a workaround, one that looked more impressive in total than it was, thanks to 17 points from Marcus Thornton in just 20 minutes, 10 from Shaun Livingston, nine from Blatche. Kevin Garnett produced a game from a vintage earlier in his career.
That Toronto managed to find a way to climb all the way back to within a point, setting up a final shot to win the game and the series, despite all that production around Williams, nothing to speak of from Kyle Lowry, and a flu-ridden game from Demar DeRozan, just reinforced what we already knew: with Williams a non-factor, these were two pretty evenly-matched teams.
Let's consider that for a moment. It means that Billy King has assembled a group around Williams capable of playing the Eastern Conference's third seed to a draw, and winning a Game 7 on that team's home floor.
But really, for these Brooklyn Nets to beat the Miami Heat four times out of seven, they need the ostensible reason King assembled this team and fired two coaches to show up in attacking, creating form for seven games.
Jason Kidd, the coach brought in for Williams, ran in one direction once the final shot by Lowry was blocked, and the Nets' season continued. Kidd made a beeline for Deron Williams.
They don't need him to do all the scoring, not after Johnson healed and Pierce and Garnett showed up, not after King filled out the roster with dangerous players like Livingston and Blatche and Thornton and even Alan Anderson and Mirza Teletovic and Andrei Kirilenko.
It is about some psychological choice? Is it about a once-dominant athlete gradually diminishing, one ankle injury at a time? No one knows the answer to that one but Deron Williams.
But the very scenario he wanted is here. He's surrounded by a team built to beat Miami. He's got his free shot at LeBron James.
Just how much Williams wants to take that shot, now that it's here, will determine what happens over the next two weeks in Miami and Brooklyn.
"Sometimes, you've got to find ways to help your ball club win," Paul Pierce said after Game 7 was over.
Williams knows what he has to do. Now we'll find out whether he can, and will, do it.