The underlying punchline every time you’re reminded that comparing Deron Williams to Chris Paul used to be a thing is that, despite predating the last housing collapse, this is still the most appropriate comp.
That is to say that in the four or five years since Deron’s been a premier point guard, he hasn’t done or changed very much about his game beyond receding into an older, slower, less effective version of his former self, thereby making the only natural comp for the latter day Deron Williams his former, more effective self. Put another way, Deron Williams is most recognizable as the corpse of Deron Williams, rather than a hearty version of some less tragic player. This is why it was a shock, then, to see Re-Animator-Deron shambling around the court last night against the Hawks, taking live-bodied defenders off the bounce and canning threes from the edge of the graveyard. It wasn’t the culmination of some long-incubating evolution of Williams; the man straight-up crawled out of his grave, put on the old moves for one night, and tied up a playoff series while he was at it—in large part by forcing Atlanta to adjust to him, and then keep adjusting to him, past the point of effectiveness.
Williams was, if you were wondering, well and truly dead. In games 2 and 3 of the series, he was a combined 2-15 for five points. He floated his rebound and assist numbers over that span, and the usual principals made the usual defenses, but the tone of those apologies for Deron’s play betrayed the now-total decline of what was at one time the most brutal crossover artist alive. (The thing about Deron’s crossover was there was such a recognizable rhythm to it—watch that compilation and pick out all the times the back-and-forth falls onto the beat.)
“I’m disappointed,” Nets coach Lionel Hollins said after Williams scored three points on 1-8 shooting and 1-4 in the line Game 3, “in how everybody is coming down on Deron and trying to treat him like he’s a pariah. Deron is a good person, he’s a good player. Now, is he on the level you guys think he should be? That’s your fault for thinking that somebody should be something.”
For thinking somebody should be something. Mercy. But that’s not much out of line with a former All-NBA guard who these days is scooping “statement game” clips for putting up 12 and 15, on the Lakers, in February. Hollins also talked about Deron pacing the offense and contributing all over, but any kind of close viewing of the games showed the offense slowing to a crawl when he was in—trigger-shy on open jumpers, gun-shy on turning the corner from the perimeter—and looking too beat up to do the job on defense. All of this was true then, and remains true after the fact.
So all evidence is that this was just as a ridiculous thing to have happened as it seemed:
Deron looked like the Old Deron—remember him? with the crossover?—and the Hawks could not deal, especially in the fourth quarter when Williams scored 16 points and assisted on three more buckets with a variety of moves from his former life.
There was no plan for this. Why would there be? Atlanta’s first reaction (which they kept up through the end of overtime) was to key entirely on him—as soon as he started that first step, two or three parts of the defense would start to shade his way. This makes some rough sense, but has a weird collateral effect of turning back the clock on a player like Deron, who, once some of the tread wears off the wheels, starts to see the floor differently; different angles are presented to him as he’s less of a threat off the bounce, and he has to learn a whole new way to manipulate space and defenders—plenty never do. Deron hasn’t, really.
So it’s ironic that the Hawks, to some degree, made Deron more comfortable as they tried to make him uncomfortable with the ball. Look at the play at 1:33 in the highlights above. Deron’s in transition, and all three defenders’ heads are locked onto him, letting Bogdanovic sneak baseline for the kind of easy drop-off Williams picked up two or three times a game in Utah, but doesn’t see much of these days. Once it was clear that if the Hawks kept defending him like the latter day Deron he might have had 30 points in the third, the Hawks shifted into anticipating star-PG movements, and Williams looked like he was back in water. He visibly tired, but paying enough attention to him to wear him down meant creating the same angles and openings that the ‘08 Deron tore up, and he still has vision enough to hit a cutter, or bounce a pass into the cradle of a rolling (okay, falling) Brook Lopez. The attention that typically forces star players to fall back on their smarts seemed instead to open up a dusty old bag of tricks.
But then, in the middle of the fourth quarter, the Hawks adjusted again. They began blitzing hard, trapping high on every screen, like something you’d expect to see Kentucky doing to some flop-sweating 16-seed. Their guards would pressure out beyond the three-point line, and the big defending the screener would press out to trap, essentially ignoring his man to try to force the ball out of Williams’s (or Jarrett Jack’s or Joe Johnson’s) hands. The thinking presumably went that Williams would wear down, give up some turnovers, and the other Nets ballhandlers aren’t really threats to split the double and eat up the space behind it. It worked, for a while, outside of that one turnaround, behind-the-back, what-the-fuck-no-come-on-here-what-the-fuck 28-footer by Deron. Here are the late fourth-quarter possessions, annotated:
5:02 4th - to Lopez middle, foul on the floor
4:51 4th - to Lopez middle, swing, swing, corner 3
4:23 4th - Deron forced right, out of bounds, Nets retain ball; traps on inbound force slow possession, Bogdanovic heaves a brick
[No-trap possession; bad Joe Johnson ISO/clank]
2:30 4th - swing, swing, clank
2:00 4th - lol Deron bomb
1:30 4th - trap without committment; antic backs off, but too far and doesn’t challenge ball OR stick to Brook, Deron makes easy feed
1:07 4th - Horford shows way high, Deron blows by, gets blocked by help
0:43 4th - to Brook middle, wide to Joe, pump fake, brick
These are fairly good results! But watching those plays is like watching a machine-learning algorithm chew at its parameters. Deron stopped flinging himself at the rim, and no longer had space to eat up Teague on the wing (he’d hit him up on four straight possessions just before this switch, including two nasty crossovers, one to the hoop and another to slip free for a three), and instead started finding ways to work the ball in to Lopez in the space behind the trap, who could then distribute to whatever cracks opened up in the defense’s over-taxed back-end. The Nets took the worse of the deal, but at least seemed to have a plan going into overtime.
4:30 OT - to Brook, swing wing, wide open 3
3:00 OT - Joe gets trapped high, re-screens, dribbles right around Antic, uses space behind trap (left free throw line) to make shot
1:40 OT - Joe trapped twice, re-screens going toward right corner where Deron is waiting, swing to Deron, who pings it back to middle to Brook, Brook turns and fires to left corner, 3, BK lead
1:03 OT - Joe screens, re-screens, Brook rolls and the trap stays with Johnson. Carroll picks up Brook, but that leaves Thad wide open for a 4-footer, and-1
Mike Budenholzer never made the second adjustment. This was spectacular as it played out in real time, the fantastic sort of turn you only see when you press an arrogant proposition—this point guard is fat, and his teammates cannot dribble or pass—only to find out it’s violently, destructively wrong. The turn was possible because the Nets have 3.5 players who can dribble and pass whom they can play in crunch time—because the Nets spend money, salary cap wisdom and basketblog handwringing be damned. And it was only possible to ignore that reality because a very old zombie crawled out of cold storage and laid a bad enough whomping on the best team in the East that they stuck to the superstar-busting defense long after it was effective. In a very real sense, it was the ghost of Deron Williams who beat the Hawks last night.
Image via AP