Deron Williams was the first piece of this Brooklyn Nets' puzzle, the All-Star point guard around whom everyone else was supposed to fall in place.
With the additions of All-Star swingman Joe Johnson and then future Hall of Famers Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, Williams' name has been shoved a few rungs lower on the team's marquee this season. But make no mistake: How Williams plays could determine if the team wins a playoff series for the first time since moving to Brooklyn.
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When Williams is at the top of his game and is able to get his teammates involved, the Nets are a difficult team to beat, as the Toronto Raptors found out Friday night in Game 3 of their Eastern Conference first-round playoff series. Williams scored 22 points, shooting 7-for-14, and had eight assists to lead the Nets to a 102-98 win and a 2-1 lead in the series.
Yet even in playing his best game of the playoffs, Williams showed some of the maddening inconsistency that has plagued his career as a Net. As the Raptors were furiously trying to come back in the final minute, Williams missed three of his five free throws.
"He's human. It happens," coach Jason Kidd said. "He missed a couple, but we still believe when he goes to the free-throw line that he's going to make the next one."
The Nets, who went ahead by 15 points with 5:02 remaining, were outscored 32-25 in the final period.
"We've got to work on putting teams away, especially in our building," Williams said. "We have the crowd behind us and we got to put our foot on people, and we didn't do that tonight."
Williams did come up big early in the game. Playing with the kind of emotion fans are more used to seeing from guys like Garnett and Pierce, he seized the momentum in the final minutes of the second quarter.
He tussled with Kyle Lowry, who was called for a foul. Williams made both free throws and then stole the ball from Lowry on the next possession. Finally, with 39 seconds left, he hit an 18-footer to give the Nets a 49-41 lead.
Even with the mishaps in the final minute, the game was Williams' best of the series. In the Nets' Game 2 loss, he had 15 points and five assists in 35 minutes. He shot 5-for-15 from the floor as the Nets lost by five points. He did score 24 points in their Game 1 win, but he shot 8-for-20 and had only three assists.