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Saturday, May 3, 2014
D-Will, JJ ready to bring 'grit' to Game 7

By Mike Mazzeo

NEW YORK -- On May 4, 2013, Deron Williams and Joe Johnson walked off the court at Barclays Center extremely disappointed following their Game 7 loss to the Chicago Bulls.

Exactly one year later, “Brooklyn’s Backcourt” will get its shot at redemption.

“It’s a similar situation,” Williams said of Sunday’s Game 7 against the Toronto Raptors at Air Canada Centre. “We’re on the road, but it’s a Game 7. And we definitely remember that game.

“But like I said, this is a new team. We’re excited about this opportunity. I’ve been on a team that’s won a Game 7 on the road before [May 5, 2007, in Houston, with Utah]. It can be done, but it’s gonna take a lot of hard work, a lot of grit and we’ve gotta be ready to go.”

Johnson echoed similar sentiments.

“This is a different team, but Game 7 is Game 7,” he said. “You can’t put too much on it. We’ll come out, try to hit first and be the more physical team.”

On July 13, 2012, the Nets introduced Williams, who had just signed a max five-year, $98 million contract to stay, and Johnson, who had just been acquired from the Atlanta Hawks in a blockbuster trade, at Brooklyn Borough Hall. That day, GM Billy King called Williams and Johnson the best backcourt in the NBA.

But the two have struggled to play together ever since -- until now. In their first-round Eastern Conference playoff series against the Raptors, Williams and Johnson have been their team’s best two-man lineup. The Nets are outscoring the Raptors by nearly 18 points per 100 possessions (113.0 to 95.3) during the duo’s 200 minutes on the floor.

Brooklyn is at its best when Williams is aggressive and driving into the paint and Johnson is attacking in the post and exploiting double-teams as a scorer and facilitator.

During the series, the Nets have won when Williams had played well (23 points on 46 percent shooting in wins) and lost when he hasn’t (12.7 points on 37.1 percent shooting in losses). Meanwhile, Johnson has been a model of consistency, averaging a team-high 20.8 points on 54.1 percent shooting. Staggeringly, Brooklyn has given up a little more than 33 points per 100 possessions without Johnson on the floor (129.5 to 96.4).

“I needed to be more aggressive after the last two losses,” said Williams, who had 23 points as the Nets staved off elimination in Game 6. “I know that’s what my team needs me to do. ... Hopefully I can continue to do that. Hopefully it doesn’t have to be [the flip of] a switch. Hopefully it’s just something I can consistently do.”

Last season, Johnson was hampered by plantar fasciitis in his left foot and scored just six points in Game 7 against the Bulls on 2-for-14 shooting -- 1-for-9 from 3-point range. Williams had 24 points, seven assists and six rebounds in that game.

This season, however, Johnson is healthy, and Williams is the one with the injury, having twisted his left ankle in the third quarter of Game 6. Williams said he plans to receive a lot of treatment before Game 7 so he'll be ready to play.

As for Johnson being healthy, he said, “It feels great. I've been doing everything I can to help us win.”

The Nets have invested a lot in “Brooklyn’s Backcourt.” Nearly $77 million so far.

A second consecutive seven-game, first-round exit would be unacceptable.

“This is it,” Johnson said. “Somebody is gonna lose, and obviously we don't want it to be us, so we gotta bring our ‘A’ game.”