Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted in 2005.
MIAMI - To be fair, the Nets' late collapse here Thursday night was a group effort, full of breakdowns and mishaps across the board in the final fatal minutes.
But it's also fair to point out this: Deron Williams, the original piece of the Nets' big-ticket rebuilding project, again came up small in a big spot, perhaps never more so than this one.
The man who once was regarded as arguably the best point guard on Earth did not score in the Nets' 94-82 loss, which gave the Heat a 2-0 lead in the Eastern Conference semifinal series.
Not one. Zero. On 0-for-9 shooting, capped by having his final attempt blocked by Chris Bosh with 19.8 seconds left.
Williams did distribute the ball well at times, totaling six assists, and added seven rebounds, but that didn't make him feel much better.
Afterward he sat by his locker after showering for a few minutes, watching with reporters to see if the Cowboys would draft Johnny Manziel. But before Dallas made its selection, he disgustedly tossed his toiletries bag and went into a back room to finish changing.
When he emerged, he said, "I was aggressive, got to the paint, just didn't hit shots. I'll still do the same thing as far as when I'm doubled, make the right pass, get in the lane, attack in transition. I just couldn't buy a bucket. Didn't get to the free-throw line, either."
The entire Nets starting lineup was 4-for-8 from the line in a game officiated loosely throughout.
Williams said he never before had gone scoreless in a playoff game. He said his previous low was two points for the Jazz against the Warriors in Game 5 of the 2007 conference semifinals, when he shot 1-for-11. "That was a pretty bad one, too," he said. But his team won.
Asked if it's good that there is another game Saturday, Williams said, "That's the best thing when something like that happens, just put it behind you and come out the next game ready."
Said Paul Pierce: "I think he'll be fine. He's a competitor. He knows how to bounce back. He's done it his whole life."
We shall see about that. Truth is, Williams has been nothing special during the Nets' two seasons in Brooklyn, surely not special enough to justify the five-year, $98.7-million contract he signed two summers ago.
That's a problem moving forward, because while Kevin Garnett and Pierce mostly are aging role players, the Nets need Williams, Joe Johnson and currently injured center Brook Lopez to be their centerpieces -- assuming the team doesn't find a way to move Williams in the offseason.
The Nets now must win four of five games against the three-time defending conference champs to advance, an unlikely scenario even with Williams playing well, and a seeming impossibility without it.
Both coaches tried to be kind to Williams. The Nets' Jason Kidd said, "I thought he had some great looks. Some [shots] just rolled around the rim. The other thing that he did was set the tone. He attacked and got the ball into the paint . . . I thought his overall game was really good."
Said the Heat's Erik Spoelstra: "Some of those shots he misses and they're wide open, it could change the way it looks . . . As he goes up there in his comfort zone, he'll be even more aggressive."
But Williams has pretty much used up his benefit of the doubt from fans at this point. He has had his moments in these playoffs, but not enough of them.
After slow starts in Game 2, the Heat's stars awakened. The Nets' never did.
"I just missed the shots," Williams said when asked one last time what went wrong. "Had a couple of open looks and I got to the basket. I got fouled on a couple but no call. Just have to keep playing."
If this keeps up, he and his friends won't have to keep playing much longer.