Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted in 2005.
TORONTO - This was the sort of big-game point guard play the Nets invested in back in July of 2012, when they retained Deron Williams as the centerpiece of their rebuilding project and paid $98.7 million for the privilege:
Thirty-six points, including six three-pointers on nine tries. Six assists to only one turnover. Two crucial baskets during the final, tense minutes and, finally, a victory in a pivotal playoff game.
Yup, that was the plan. Only Williams was not the point guard who accomplished all that Wednesday night at Air Canada Centre.
Instead it was his counterpart, the Raptors' Kyle Lowry, and the Nets' net result was a 115-113 loss in Game 5 of their first-round playoff series, leaving the NBA's costliest team one loss from elimination.
For most of the night, the guard matchup was as much of a mismatch as the game seemed to be. At one point in the third quarter the Raptors led by 26 points, and Lowry was outscoring Williams, 28-3.
But things got mighty complicated in the fourth as Lowry, who is nursing a sore knee, took a rest, Williams began to play better and Brooklyn stormed back to twice tie the game in the final minutes. Then Lowry made a long three-pointer that broke a tie at 106 with 1:04 left and added a two-pointer on a driving hook shot (over Williams) with 27 seconds remaining and the Raptors held on.
Williams contributed 10 points and five assists in a fourth quarter during which the Nets scored an astounding 44 points, but even that finish left him with a final line of 13 points, nine assists, four steals and three turnovers.
In other words -- pardon the cliche -- too little, too late.
"In the first half I couldn't get anything going," he said. "In the second half and fourth quarter, I was getting into the lane, we switched up and did some different looks and plays we put in at shootaround today and they worked for us."
What have the Raptors been doing to keep Williams from being a larger factor?
"He's had some good games and obviously Terrence [Ross] has done a good job of keeping him in front," Lowry said. "We've been scheming for him and Joe [Johnson]. That's the thing we've been doing: following our game plan."
As much as the Nets and their fans sometimes bristle at the relative lack of attention they get in the metropolitan area compared to the Knicks and most other local pro teams, that fact has worked in Williams' favor. Had a star of his stature and pay scale been playing for most New York franchises, he would come in for far more criticism for his sometimes lackluster production.
But for most of Game 5, Lowry made it impossible not to notice Williams was coming up short. The Raptors star even added style points, hitting a desperate three-pointer at the first-half buzzer while falling forward. "He's just tough to guard when he gets like that," Williams said.
"He's playing with a lot of confidence right now, and so we have to try to slow him down as much as possible."Coach Jason Kidd went with the same five players for all but eight seconds of the final quarter, as he should have, given their production.
But that left Pierce and Garnett -- for whom the team traded chunks of its future -- on the bench, which served to highlight the fact that for all their star power, the real stars of the Nets should and must be Williams and Johnson.
Johnson did his part Wednesday night, scoring 30 points. Williams? Not so much.
All is not lost. As these teams have proved, every game is a coin flip, and Williams still is quite capable of producing a strong performance. No, really. But time is almost up.