Deron Williams of the Brooklyn Nets goes to the hoop...

Deron Williams of the Brooklyn Nets goes to the hoop for a layup in the first half against the Milwaukee Bucks. (Feb. 19, 2013) Credit: Jim McIsaac

They'd prefer if it didn't become a habit, given how vital Joe Johnson is to their success.

Still, it was an encouraging sign for the Nets. After two fruitless efforts with their closer sidelined as he waits for his sore left heel to improve sufficiently, the Nets found a way to get it done in the waning moments minus Johnson Tuesday night in New Orleans.

Even though the Hornets (20-38) aren't exactly a juggernaut, the Nets' 101-97 victory gave them a little faith, knowing that if they don't have Johnson -- whether because of injury or foul trouble -- it's not exactly a death sentence.

At least not if Deron Williams plays lights out as he did in the fourth quarter.

"To win without Joe Johnson . . . " Keith Bogans said loudly enough in the postgame locker room so Johnson could hear him, hoping to get a rise out of the Nets' go-to guy before eventually turning serious.

"Nah, I mean, it's big. Joe is such a big part of this team. We look to him on the offensive end. I think Deron did a great job making big shots, and that's what those guys are here for."

Against New Orleans, Williams assumed Johnson's role as the primary offensive option in crunch time and was clutch. Williams had a huge fourth quarter, scoring the Nets' final 11 points, and he had a game-high 33 points along with eight assists.

"It feels good to get going, especially down the stretch and be able to close out a game," Williams said. "It's something I've kind of struggled with this year and I was really successful at for most of my career. So, it feels good to finally be able to have a game like that."

Particularly since he was without his sidekick. Either way, it was a bit of a boost for Williams and the Nets.

"I think that's a positive you can take from having a guy out, is that other guys need to step in," Williams said. "You've seen MarShon [Brooks] get good minutes and some other guys get minutes in his absence. You can always take some good things out, but we want Joe out there, especially in the fourth quarter."

Now, the real trick is to get Williams, who is averaging 17.3 points, and Johnson (17.0) clicking consistently simultaneously. Rarely this season have both turned in noteworthy performances in the same game. Usually, it's been one or the other.

But lately, with Williams playing much more like the point guard who prompted general manager Billy King to trade for him in 2011, perhaps that All-Star backcourt the Nets have touted has finally stabilized.

"Hopefully, we just keep going," Williams said. "I think we've been playing better together since the break and look forward to continuing that."

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