Deron Williams reacts after scoring during Game 1 of the...

Deron Williams reacts after scoring during Game 1 of the first round of the NBA playoffs against the Chicago Bulls. (April 20, 2013) Credit: AP

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- When Deron Williams was slumping badly months ago, long before his head-turning rebirth, P.J. Carlesimo developed somewhat of a soft spot for the star point guard.

Before the cortisone injections and platelet-rich plasma therapy in Williams' inflamed ankles, and prior to a juice-cleansing program that helped the guard shed 20 pounds, the Nets' interim coach knew that wasn't really Williams out there before the All-Star break.

He just wasn't himself physically. Now Carlesimo is astonished by the 180-degree spin.

"I was feeling badly for Deron having to play the way he was playing -- dinged up, if you will,'' Carlesimo said at the PNY Center Sunday. "I'm very, very surprised that he and our medical people were able to turn it around that dramatically that quickly.

"It's amazing, really. He's not 100 percent but . . . to make as dramatic a change as quickly as he did is very impressive.''

Williams' breathtaking run since the All-Star break was on full display again in the Nets' 106-89 win over the Bulls in the opener of their Eastern Conference first-round series Saturday night. He'll look to continue it Monday night when the Nets host Game 2.

Of all the brilliant plays Williams made during his 22-point, seven-assist performance, perhaps nothing drew as much attention as that two-handed reverse dunk near the end of the third quarter.

Most of his teammates smiled broadly when Williams' Air Jordan moment was brought up.

"I told him it kind of shocked me,'' Gerald Wallace said. "I was right behind him, so he kind of caught me off-guard with that. I didn't think he had it in him.''

No way Williams could have gotten up like that when his ankles were barking weeks ago, another indication of the stunning turnaround of the Nets' $98-million man. His explosiveness and ability to cut on a dime are back, trademark skills that disappeared early in the season.

"I think it kind of limited his game,'' Wallace said. "It took him out of what he wanted to do and the things that he was capable of doing. He's like the head of the snake. He's the leader of our team, and when he's not going right, the team isn't going right.''

Keith Bogans, the Nets' class clown, did his best to build Williams up mentally as he fought through his injuries. Bogans could see the toll that Williams' struggles were taking on him.

"Just stayed positive with him,'' Bogans said. "Every day Deron came in the gym, I made sure I was that positive voice telling him to stick with it, 'Let's do this, let's do that.' Just constantly working, working, working, and he just worked through it.

"I think it was just a rough patch, one of those times that all of us go through when you are either not shooting the ball or playing well. His was just for an extended period of time and it was under the microscope.''

Except now when people are dissecting him, they're seeing a much different Williams: the guy who's supposed to be one of the league's elite point guards.

"If you watch him prior to All-Star break and post,'' Carlesimo said, "it's almost a different player, which is great that he was able to do that, and the work and the conditioning and the treatment really paid off.''

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