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BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- Deep down in a place most would not open for public viewing, Deron Williams understood the stakes. He's no dummy. He knew that if he delivered an indifferent Game 6 against the Toronto Raptors, he would not only be eliminated from the playoffs.
He would be eliminated from New York.
Maybe Brooklyn Nets general manager Billy King wouldn't be able to trade away the three years and $63 million left on his contract. Maybe Williams would return to the Nets out of necessity, leaving his team to sell the false hope that Jason Kidd, visionary point guard, would finally get the best out of his quarterback in Year 2.
But this much would be certain: The marketplace would be done with him as a franchise-shaping star. Nets fans would be much like the Mets fans who eventually cried uncle on all those maddening, high-priced stars from other places, everyone from Robbie Alomar to Jason Bay.
|Deron Williams was praised by his teammates for playing through a rolled ankle in Game 6.|
That's pressure, and in his three-plus years with the Nets, Williams has done a dead-on, Frank Caliendo-esque impression of someone who isn't fond of pressure. So as much as this was a sudden-death game for Brooklyn, it was a sudden-death game for Williams as well.
He responded with 23 points in this 97-83 Nets victory, setting a spirited tone early by speaking with the kind of body language he doesn't always apply. Williams had an urgent bounce to him, and he severely outplayed his more consistently passionate nemesis, Kyle Lowry, to send this series to Sunday's Game 7 in Toronto.
"He stood up to what was said," Kidd said of the pregame criticism his point guard faced, "and responded with one of his best games."
"I needed to be more aggressive after the last two losses," Williams said. "I know what my team needs me to do, and I wanted to come out early and do that."
The Nets are 3-0 in this series when their point guard scores at least 20 points, and 0-3 when he does not, meaning Williams and the ankle he rolled Friday night will be front and center in Game 7. And Williams has to realize something about that date in the Air Canada Centre, something he probably didn't want to hear in the giddy aftermath of Game 6:
He has to win that one, too. At the very least, in the event of defeat, he has to outdo Lowry again and stay clear of the top three or four reasons why his Nets failed to advance past the first round for the second consecutive year.
He's the major figure in his prime. He's the chief inspiration behind the Nets' all-in deal with Boston for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett and behind Mikhail Prokhorov's choice to lay out close to $200 million in wages and taxes for this one-shot stab at a ring.
"Every move we've made since we acquired Deron Williams," said one team official, "was made because of Deron Williams."
He stood up to what was said and responded with one of his best games." -- Jason Kidd, on criticism Deron Williams faced before Game 6
The never-ending, futile pursuit of Dwight Howard. The trade for Joe Johnson and his monster contract. The hiring of Kidd, Williams' old idol. The deals for Pierce and Garnett. Even the deal for Gerald Wallace, which cost the Nets their lottery pick in the 2012 draft.
The pick that would become Portland's Damian Lillard, a much younger, faster, better and cheaper option than the veteran free agent the Nets kept for $100 million.
Williams hasn't honored his franchise's faith, and injuries aren't even half the story. 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.
He had his moments early in this series, but his combined 7-for-19 from the floor in the Games 4 and 5 defeats (while Lowry shot 18-for-36) -- paired with the failure to beat Chicago last year -- made Friday night a referendum on his place, or lack thereof, in Brooklyn. He answered the questions by dusting Lowry in building a 19-point halftime lead and by shooting 8-of-16 from the field for the game to Lowry's 4-of-16 for 11 points.
"It just shows what type of player he is," Kidd said, "and what he's all about."
With 9:55 left in the third quarter, after Williams went down in a heap, the point guard limped about in obvious pain on his twisted ankle before Kidd approached him at midcourt, told him to prepare for his free throws and motioned for him to try to walk it off. The same coach who had promised before the game that there "won't be any Rudy speeches" seemed ready to deliver one on the spot.
Fans started chanting Williams' name, and after he reappeared following the timeout, they cheered him for giving it the ol' college try. It wasn't exactly Willis Reed hobbling out of the Game 7 tunnel, but it would have to do.
Garnett would go on about Williams' heart and grit and suggest that lesser men would've given in to the pressure and pain. "He could have took another route, you know?" said Garnett, who delivered a throwback performance of his own. "But that's our leader. That's our leader."
All season long, the old Celtics, Garnett and Pierce, have tried to pump up Williams and inflate his wavering opinion of himself. Kidd picked up where they left off Friday night, all but nominating his guy for a Congressional medal.
"I think Deron showed he's a warrior," Kidd maintained. "He sprained his ankle, comes back, shoots the free throws and doesn't want to come out of the game. And I think that just shows leadership and toughness."
Two things he showed on a regular basis in Utah.
Williams said that his ankle will be ready for Game 7 before reminding reporters that he played for a Jazz team that won a Game 7 on the road. Sitting next to Williams at the postgame news conference, Pierce said, "I love our chances," while Andray Blatche was in the locker room guaranteeing a second-round trip to Miami.
But Pierce already has his championship ring, and nobody really cares about Blatche's promises to do this or that. Game 7 will be just like Game 6 -- a sudden-death test of Deron Williams' character and skill, not to mention his desire to remain a credible part of the treacherous sports landscape in New York.