Avery Johnson chuckled, flashing that toothy grin he's known for. Sasha Vujacic's words from a day earlier, that Wednesday night's's matchup with the Knicks was the Nets' "biggest game of the season," had just been relayed to the Nets' coach, who couldn't resist beaming from ear to ear.
"Is that what he said?" Johnson asked. "Great. Well, I would like to see it. So hopefully we'll come out roaring like lions."
That they did, but they went out like a bunch of lambs in Deron Williams' return from a wrist injury. The point guard had the ball in the closing seconds with the Nets down by two, setting up a Hollywood-type finish. But Williams missed a 17-footer with five seconds left, foiling the Nets' comeback bid after they blew a 16-point first-half lead in a 120-116 loss.
"The play was for me to get in the middle and clear everybody out," Williams said. "But Chauncey [Billups] took that away, so I had to go back door. As soon as I caught it, I squared up. I looked at the lane and it was wide open. I was going to try to get to the basket and I shook Anthony Carter off and had a good look but I just rushed the shot."
In his Garden debut as a Net, Williams had 22 points, eight rebounds and eight assists in nearly 37 minutes. After a slow start that probably could be attributed to not playing since March 18, he finally made his presence felt midway through the second half when he swished two threes in 58 seconds. That helped propel the Nets to an 84-74 lead after the Knicks got within a point. But Williams missed three critical shots in the waning minutes.
"Timing was off a little, but man, he made some big plays for us," Johnson said. "Big shots, timely threes, good assists. But then you could see on some of his floaters or even there at the end maybe where he ran out of gas a little bit. But for a guy who hadn't played in a while or practiced with contact, I thought he was awfully good."
His status wasn't clear until about 90 minutes before the tip, but with this one televised nationally, Williams wanted to suit up. "He's a competitor," Johnson said. "He's played in a lot of big games, a lot of playoff series. So he understands the magnitude of the game."
And he's apparently not ready to call it a season yet. "It feels good, so I am probably going to play against Philly [tomorrow]," Williams said. "After that game, see how it goes from there."
The same can be said about this once- heated rivalry. Williams appeared to enjoy himself, other than missing that last-second shot.
"It was good, it was fun," he said. "I always enjoy playing in the Garden. There's so much history in the building. Hopefully, as we get better and mature, we can form a better rivalry."