By Steve Lichtenstein
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A Little League coaching colleague of mine has this saying: "You can't hide in baseball."
By that he means that no matter what position you place your weaker players, the ball inevitably finds them.
It turns out that it's also true in basketball. And for Nets fans, the last person they want to have the ball in their hands with a big game on the line is—ironically—their $100-million point guard.
Deron Williams was billed as the go-to guy when he was traded to the then-New Jersey Nets four years ago and then signed to that exorbitant five-year contract extension in the summer of 2012.
I can't recall ever seeing him succeed in a clutch moment in a Nets uniform.
So when Brooklyn coach Lionel Hollins huddled in a timeout with his team trailing, 93-91, with 27 seconds remaining in Game 2 of the Nets' Eastern Conference quarterfinal series on Wednesday in Atlanta, it wouldn't have been surprising if D-Will was thinking, "Just don't give me the damn ball."
Of course, so long as Hollins insisted that Williams stay on the court, there was no place for him to hide. Not even in the weak-side left corner as Joe Johnson dribbled to the right lane looking for an opportunity to create a game-tying score off one of his patented iso-Joe moves.
But then Johnson went behind his back to cut to the middle of the paint, where three Hawks converged on him. Johnson made the correct pass to a wide-open Williams behind the three-point line.
With Kent Bazemore closing hard, Williams pump-faked the Hawks swingman out of his shoes and then dribbled into an even easier uncontested 16-footer along the baseline.
It was the kind of shot that NBA players have to make. It was the kind of shot that Deron Williams NEVER makes.
Williams' sixth miss in seven field goal attempts ensured that the Nets would leave Atlanta trailing, 2-0, in their best-of-seven series following Wednesday's 96-91 defeat. Game 3 will be played on Saturday afternoon in Brooklyn.
Mike Mazzeo of ESPN.com reported that Williams is now 2-for-17 from the field in the final five minutes of playoff games that the Nets were ahead or behind by five points or fewer.
Two-for-17. That's Dave Winfield-esque.
If that missed shot wasn't bad enough, let's not gloss over two other key plays that cost the Nets dearly down the stretch. The first came with a little under four minutes left and Brooklyn down by five. Williams took off in transition, drove to the baseline and tried a crosscourt pass--that skipped out of bounds.
The Nets, as is their nature, did not go away, cutting the deficit to one point with less than a minute remaining on a Jarrett Jack three-pointer. A defensive stop would have been huge.
On this possession, Williams was guarding Hawks forward DeMarre Carroll in the right corner--in proper help position--as the Hawks ran a high pick-and-roll with point guard Jeff Teague and forward Paul Millsap. When Teague passed the ball to a popping Millsap behind the three-point line, Williams took a jump step toward Millsap, even though he had no chance to contest a shot. That cued Carroll to cut to the basket, where he took the extra pass from Millsap for an easy layup.
After that play, Williams gestured to teammate Brook Lopez, as if the lumbering seven-foot center would have been able to move that quickly across the lane to intercede.
With Williams, there's always excuses. The coach. The various injuries, mostly to his ankles. When is he going to stand up and take responsibility for routinely coming up small in the biggest situations?
Nets fans could accept that Williams will never again be the player he once was. A player who rivaled Chris Paul among the league's elite at his position. He is far from that stratosphere now, an average point guard at best.
And with his contract, he is in all likelihood untradable. The Nets were rumored to have tried prior to the February deadline, at one point discussing a potential trade with Sacramento. That deal reportedly fell through when the Kings demanded backup center Mason Plumlee from Brooklyn.
D-Will still has some value to Brooklyn, as evidenced by his 10 rebounds and eight assists on Wednesday. The Nets' offense almost always runs much smoother with Williams running the show as opposed to Jack, whose 23 points on 9-for-13 shooting was more the exception to this season rather than the rule.
Nets general manager Billy King has to try harder to move Williams this summer. For if there's one thing that New Yorkers will never accept, it's is a player who can't handle the spotlight. For all of Jack's shortcomings—and it's a lengthy list—he's not shy when it comes to taking the big shot. Or any shot.
Since I opened with a baseball reference, I'll close with a football one: As Gene Hackman told Keanu Reeves in the forgettable movie, "The Replacements," "Winners always want the ball when the game's on the line."
You can infer what I think that makes Deron Williams.
For a FAN's perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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