New Jersey Nets point guard Deron Williams scores a free...

New Jersey Nets point guard Deron Williams scores a free throw during the first quarter against the Phoenix Suns. (Feb. 28, 2011) Credit: AP

Who thought it was going to work out like this? The Nets, the runners-up (read: losers) in the Carmelo Anthony sweepstakes, are feeling pretty good about themselves right now. Having put together five victories in a row, their early-season problems seem to be a distant memory, and reporters are even mentioning the word playoffs at the Nets' practice facility without doubling over in laughter.

Unlike the Knicks across the river, who seem to be struggling at times to integrate their new players, the Nets are cooking since trading with the Jazz for point guard Deron Williams right before the deadline.

The 6-3, 210-pound Williams, originally cast as the consolation prize for the team that didn't get Anthony, has been playing like a guy unwilling to be second to anyone. On Monday night against the star-laden Celtics, he was the best player on the floor when it counted. Williams buried a three-pointer from the left wing with 35.6 seconds left to clinch the Nets' 88-79 win over a team contending for the NBA title.

It was easily the Nets' most important victory of the season, the sort that can give their fans cause for hope Thursday night as they host the Bulls, the Eastern Conference leaders who have won seven in a row. The game will feature the league's best young point guards as Williams takes on Derrick Rose, who many believe is the league's leading MVP candidate.

"The way we won on Monday, I think it was great," said Williams, who had 16 points, nine assists, six rebounds and three steals. "We were able to get some stops down the stretch. That does a lot for your confidence."

It's not just the Nets players who are feeling confident. Coach Avery Johnson said Tuesday on the "The Michael Kay Show" on ESPN Radio that he thought the team would be able to re-sign Williams when his contract runs out after next season. Johnson stood by that claim Wednesday after practice.

"I am really, really confident that we will be able to re-sign him," Johnson said. "What am I supposed to say? I'm leery? All signs that I've seen and heard are that as we move forward he'll be in a Nets uniform."

Johnson also said Wednesday he is happy now that things turned out the way they did, and that the Nets' offer for Anthony, which reportedly included four players and four first-round picks, was not successful.

"That would have really gutted our team, so I'm glad this didn't happen," the coach said. "When you get superstar players, people don't want to hear the excuses. If we had made that trade, we would have had to hit the ground running."

The Nets, working with lower expectations, are close to running, despite their 22-43 record. Williams, who has been hampered by a wrist injury, also missed two games last week because of the birth of his son, but the Nets won both. The game against the Celtics gave fans a hint of what they hope is more to come. In six games with the Nets, in which they're 3-3, he's averaging 15.8 points and a remarkable 14.2 assists.

With 17 games left, the Nets are 51/2 games out of the eighth and final playoff spot in a weak conference. "Indiana has to stop winning, and we have to win games," said Williams, who first broached the playoff topic after the Celtics game. "That's no secret."

What is a secret is whether Williams, 26, will be a Net for the long term. If he opts out of his contract after the 2011-12 season, that could be devastating for the team as it attempts to build a new fan base before its projected move to Brooklyn the following season. Williams isn't tipping his hand, bristling at questions from a reporter who tried to ask him about Johnson's comments on re-signing him.

Said Williams: "All that is a long way away. Right now, I'm excited about this year, I'm excited about this team and its future."

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