TORONTO -- No player on this Brooklyn Nets team has epitomized the remarkable, roller coaster ride of a season this squad has enjoyed more than Deron Williams.
So it is fitting that on the eve of the Nets’ NBA Playoffs opener in Toronto (12:30, YES), Williams has emerged as the player front and center of Brooklyn’s title quest.
He faces the dual tasks of defending Kyle Lowry, the Raptors relentless point guard, and getting the Nets into their offense against the active and physical Toronto spark plug.
“Tough,’’ Williams said when asked to describe Lowry. “Very aggressive on both ends of the floor. Definitely try to contain him. He’s just a shot maker. He’s making shots right now from everywhere.’’
So is Williams. Since returning from the All-Star break, no player has meant more to his team’s success than Williams.
The 6-3, 209-pound guard has averaged 15.5 points on 45-percent shooting, 5.6 assists, 2.8 rebounds, 1.9 steals and has set a franchise record having recorded at least one steal in 30 straight games, the longest such streak in the NBA.
He will pose as much of a challenge for Lowry as the Toronto point guard poses to Williams and the Nets. In his ninth season – six of which have included postseason appearances - Williams has an experience edge on Lowry, who is making his second playoff appearance.
“I’m motivated,’’ said Williams. “I’m definitely excited, definitely motivated. This is a great time of year. So we just have to play good basketball and try to make a deep run.’’
A deep playoff run – culminating in an NBA title – is one of the few omissions on Williams’ resume. Nets coach Jason Kidd didn’t win a title until his 17th season and understands how the quest becomes more intense over time.
“As it got later in my career, I tried to sell myself on, ‘It’s not about winning a championship, it’s about going out and competing and having that opportunity,’’’ said Kidd, who capped his stellar career with an NBA title in 2011 with the Dallas Mavericks. “Sometimes, some players don’t have that opportunity or achieve that goal, but does that really ruin your career? But then to get the championship and understand what it means to be the last team standing, it can change that, and that’s what the best players play for, is to win a championship.’’
The Nets, who finished sixth in the Eastern Conference with a 44-38 record, have a championship-experience edge over the 3rd-seeded Raptors (48-34). In addition to Kidd, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, who won a title together in Boston in 2008, understand what it takes to be the last team standing.
Kidd knows the advantage of having that experience in the locker room. Their voices could be the ones that have the most positive effect on Williams.
During the first half of the season Williams sprained his left ankle on three separate occasions. It was a significant setback for Williams, who came to training camp in great shape despite suffering a sprained right ankle in an off-season workout.
In the days leading up to the break, Williams acknowledged he had lost his confidence. KG and Pierce helped Williams relax and play.
Of course, it’s easy for them to have that perspective. They have their rings, along with internal and external validation.
“Definitely it changed the public perception,’’ said Pierce. “Before it was [you’re] just a great player and you put up a lot of good numbers. The perception is you can’t win with this guy or he’s selfish.
“You finally win a championship, that goes away because you showed that you can sacrifice and do what’s necessary to help your team win a championship. A lot of things go out the window when you reach that ultimate goal, all the negative press about you.
“But that goes with anybody who’s one of the best players in sports. At any level, you will always have those questions about you until you reach that ultimate goal. That is just the way it is.’’
That’s the way it is for Williams. He has accomplished so much and wants that last validation so badly he can’t articulate it. When asked what it would mean to win a title, he said:
“I don’t know until I do it. It’s not one of those things you can put into perspective until you have it, until you’ve done it. So that’s definitely our goal and this is the first step tomorrow.’’