Why Deron Williams' Reputation as Franchise Player Is Firmly on the Line

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistMay 3, 2014

Apr 25, 2014; Brooklyn, NY, USA; Brooklyn Nets guard Deron Williams (8) advances the ball during the third quarter against the Toronto Raptors in game three of the first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Barclays Center. Brooklyn Nets won 102-98.  Mandatory Credit: Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

It shouldn't be this easy to identify the single most important piece on the most expensive roster in NBA history but it isDeron Williams is the head, body, heart and soul of the Brooklyn Nets.

In Sunday's winner-take-all Game 7 tilt with the Toronto Raptors (1 p.m. ET on ABC), he'll need to be all of those things and more to retain (recover?) his status as an NBA franchise talent.

He wouldn't even have this opportunity had he faltered in any of those roles during Brooklyn's 97-83 Game 6 win Friday night. As if the pressure to perform then wasn't enough, Williams needed to work his magic after a(nother) scary ankle injury in the third quarter.

With a fan-made missing poster seeking his whereabouts outside the Barclays Center, the hobbled floor general made his presence known.

In 38 minutes of floor time, Brooklyn's key contributor unleashed a dominant display of strong drives to the basket, savvy setups to his teammates and a barrage of long-range buckets, the last of which closed the coffin on Toronto's comeback effort.

All of it added up to 23 points (including four made triples), five rebounds, four assists—and one giant statement that this is his team.

"Deron showed a lot of heart, a lot of grit. I would like to use another word but I can't," Nets big man Kevin Garnett said, via Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News. "... He could have took another route you know? But that's our leader."

For one night, Williams quieted the critics whose angst had reached a fever pitch for a reason. A fan might have drawn up that missing poster, but Williams was responsible for creating the idea.

Brooklyn's $98 million man had been a no-show in parts of this series or visible for all the wrong reasons. In the Nets' three losses, he's averaged just 12.7 points on 37.1 percent shooting. His problems have been compounded by the fact that in those three games, Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry has posted 24.0 points on 46.8 percent shooting.

Apr 27, 2014; Brooklyn, NY, USA; Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry (7) against Brooklyn Nets guard Deron Williams (8) during the second half in game four of the first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Barclays Center. The Raptors defeated the Nets 87-79. M

Obviously, the sky wasn't falling in Brooklyn, but the clouds sure seemed uncomfortably close.

No one hesitated to bring that to Williams' attention. To his credit, the point guard willed himself to a solution:

As much as players say they avoid the press, it's impossible to block out that outside noise entirely. There are ways to lessen its impact, but shots fired through the media typically reach their intended target.

The challenge is to keep that negativity from dictating production. Williams, when his team needed him most, passed that test with flying colors on Friday night:

Of course, that was only the beginning of a two-part exam. Should his team suffer an opening-round Game 7 loss for the second straight season, his Game 6 heroics will be forgotten.

History says there's an all-too-real possibility of that taking place Sunday.

For one, it's not like this is the first time he's encountered an ankle problem. While he'll get a day of recovery time, rest isn't always the best remedy for a bad wheel.

To that end, he said he'll get as much medical attention as he can before game time on Sunday, via Mike Mazzeo of ESPN New York:

The questions about his physical health wouldn't be quite as worrisome if not for the fact that there are equal (or greater) concerns about his level of focus.

He's shown flashes of greatness, but they've been sprinkled among unproductive performances. His hot and cold swings are too extreme for his level of talent, leaving some to wonder just which Williams the Nets will be getting for their do-or-die contest.

"Williams hasn't honored his franchise's faith, and injuries aren't even half the story," ESPN New York's Ian O'Connor wrote. "He's been so inconsistent, showing off his Utah Jazz form one night before looking barely interested the next, that nobody around the Nets would be stunned if Williams shows up Sunday packing his C-plus game."

Anything less than his A-game could put Brooklyn in a tough spot.

Apr 9, 2014; Orlando, FL, USA; Brooklyn Nets guard Deron Williams (8) looks up against the Orlando Magic during the second half at Amway Center. Orlando Magic defeated the Brooklyn Nets 115-111. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Raptors aren't going to roll over. If they're still fighting down 22 points in the fourth quarter (a deficit they trimmed to as low as 10 on Friday night), they're not going to quit.

Brooklyn will have to win this game—Toronto isn't going to lose it.

That puts the pressure squarely on Williams' shoulders. He's not a piece of the Nets' puzzle.

He's the puzzle itself.

"Every move we've made since we acquired Deron Williams," a team official told O'Connor, "was made because of Deron Williams."

Owner Mikhail Prokhorov might be signing the checks, but Williams is the justification for the ridiculous rates: $21.4 million for Joe Johnson, $15.3 million for Paul Pierce, $12.4 million for Kevin Garnett (via ShamSports.com) and some $80 million in luxury taxes.

That investment can't pay itself off on Sunday (you don't throw nearly $200 million at a team for a first-round series win), but it could certainly grade out as grossly wasted spending should this team falter.

Somehow, the stakes could be even higher for Williams. He's a high-priced, high-maintenance (coach-killing?) talent who must show he's worth the headaches.

TORONTO, ON - APRIL 30: Deron Williams #8 of the Brooklyn Nets stands on the court during a game against the Toronto Raptors in Game Five of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs at the Air Canada Centre on April 30, 2014 in To
Ron Turenne/Getty Images

He sounds confident and ready for the challenge that awaits.

"I've been on a team that's won a Game 7 on the road before, so it can be done," he said, via Tim Bontemps of the New York Post. "It's going to take a lot of hard work, a lot of grit, and we've got to be ready to go."

Of course, recognizing the pressure and actually performing in it are two entirely different things.

Williams rose to the occasion on Friday night. He'll have to do the same on Sunday.

Succeed and he'll take an important step toward reclaiming his place among the NBA elites. Fail and that path to prominence may be permanently closed.




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