NEWARK, N.J. – Deron Williams made a triumphant return to the Nets Monday night and showed once again what they’ve been missing since Jason Kidd left the team.
The Nets have a superstar, a closer with a will to win that’s impressive, and his teammates have no other choice but to follow him.
They did it in what was easily the Nets’ best win in a few years as they leveled the East’s top team, the Boston Celtics, 88-79, before the second consecutive sellout at The Rock.
It wasn’t just Williams, just like it wasn’t just Kidd back then. But their presence lifts everyone around them. This was the Nets’ fifth straight win -- their most since the 2007-08 season -- when Kidd was still steering the ship.
It says a lot that the Nets won two of the games with Williams in Dallas for the birth of his son. But it says so much more that they beat the Celtics in a game where defense and heart and toughness were needed to win, a game that had a playoff-type of atmosphere. It’s been a long time since something like that has been said about a Nets game.
“It was a big win for us, especially the way we played,” Williams said. “We battled. It was a playoff-type game, a defensive game, a grind-it-out game.”
Williams had 16 points and nine assists. His step-back three with about 36 seconds left put the Nets up seven and sent them to the unexpected victory.
It was a game the Nets likely lose pre-Williams. But there is a different feeling around this team, a belief that wasn’t here earlier in the season, and it’s trickled down to everyone, including a maligned player and a guy on a 10-day contract who you have to believe will be signed for the rest of the season.
Travis Outlaw and Sundiata Gaines had big second halves, combining for 16 points. They sparked a 14-1 run with 11 points between them that gave the Nets a 12-point fourth-quarter lead.
Outlaw also helped the Nets beat the Clippers in their prior game. Gaines, who seems to play with a chip on his shoulder, has now played big in three wins during this winning streak.
But the guys who have been carrying the Nets have been Brook Lopez and Kris Humphries, and that continued.
Lopez is playing better than he has at any point in his NBA career, and he’s making big shots late. He had another one last night, taking a Williams dish and scoring on a baseline hook to put the Nets up four.
Humphries continues to be a beast. He had 16 points and 15 rebounds. It’s not a streak like Kevin Love's, but that’s seven straight double-doubles for Humphries.
And the Nets have lifted their defensive intensity. They held the Celtics to 15 points in the second period and 18 points in the fourth. The Nets gave up six points in the final 5:44 and none over the last 3:08.
“Our defense kept up,” Lopez said. “We just kept telling each other ‘One stop. One stop’ with like a minute and a half left. We needed one stop.
“We’re playing with a lot of confidence right now.”
It’s amazing what one player can do, and this is why the Nets have to do everything to keep Williams beyond next season, which is when his current contract expires.
There is no denying Williams has changed the whole mood around the Nets. The trade deadline passing and the Nets knowing this is the team they’re going to have for the remainder of the season is important too, but not nearly as impactful as Williams’ presence.
You have to look at how the Nets have won each of these last five games. They’ve played no defense and won twice with their shot-making against Toronto, including a triple-overtime affair.
They played defense against the Warriors and won with Lopez carrying them late. They came back from 20 down to beat the Clippers with Lopez, Humphries and Jordan Farmar playing stellar games.
And then the Nets beat the Celtics in a defensive struggle, and when it came down to execution, they made the big plays when it counted against the best team in the East.
“I think we’re playing good right now,” Williams said. “I think we’re jelling pretty well for having such a short time together, and having fun: having fun winning.
“These games are important right now, not only because we have a chance for the playoffs, but just for the future, and going forward next year.”
Al Iannazzone covers the Nets for The Record (Bergen County, N.J.)