Brook Lopez has emerged as the leader of the Brooklyn Nets this year, but it is the Deron Williams-Joe Johnson duo that has been the difference-making jolt to a franchise coming off five straight losing, playoff-less seasons in New Jersey.
Suddenly, the Nets have a very realistic shot at the second seed in the East, even with the loss against the Philadelphia 76ers on Monday.
Brooklyn sits just 2.5 games behind the New York Knicks, who are riddled with critical injuries, an aging-by-the-game roster and a host of other offensive, defensive and emotional problems. New York is 7-8 in their last 15 and they’ve actually played sloppier than that.
The Nets are also 2.5 games behind the Indiana Pacers. Brooklyn has already proven it can keep up with Indiana and the Georges, beating them twice and holding them to just 85 PPG. These two defensive-minded squads will clash one more time in the final week of the season in what could be the decider.
It's Up for Grabs! Who Will Take the East's Second Seed?
Last year, New Jersey was 24th in defense without Lopez, and in 2010-11, the Nets were 15th in defense with Lopez and Kris Humphries peaking.
Meanwhile, Brooklyn has upped the franchise’s offense to its best in four years (95 PPG).
This is all a far cry from the Deron Williams-led clunkers of the past year-and-a-half, or the abominable Brook Lopez-led 12-70 team of 2009-10.
Gerald Wallace has been an uptick helping on defense, but he has underachieved on the court and has fallen off the cliff offensively the past 30 games or so.
Expensive lame-duck Kris Humphries hardly clocks 20 minutes anymore and his contributions have slipped by eight points and five rebounds a game.
Reggie Evans has supplanted most of Humphries’ rebounds and the Nets have a nice bench—Andray Blatche and C.J. Watson—that have helped pick up the slack.
But the difference in the 58-172 (.252) Nets of the last three years and the 2012-13 Nets (37-27, .578) can very much be traced to the arrival of Joe Johnson and his pairing with Deron Williams.
Let’s take a quick aside here and acknowledge that the move to Brooklyn and the Barclays Center have added to the team’s win totals.
But mostly, it’s the upgrade at the No. 2 that has the Nets sneaking around.
Johnson is having his worst statistical season in 10 years. His points, assists, rebounds and steals are all down. The numbers are not bad (16.5 PPG, 3.6 APG, 3.2 RPG, 0.6 SPG), just not his usual.
His offensive numbers skyrocketed when he was paired with mediocre point guards Mike Bibby and Jeff Teague in Atlanta. He was picking up the slack for his teammates.
However, he doesn’t have to work as hard with Williams as his backcourt mate.
Johnson’s production must be measured in his all-around impact while on the floor, not in terms of his individual statistics.
According to 82games.com, Johnson is the team leader in every offensive on-floor category: minutes, plus/minus (by 68 points over second-best Lopez, +177 to +109), points per possession, wins and win percentage.
No wonder Lopez is playing out of his head. When his shooting guard is on the court, the Nets have outscored opponents by what will soon top 200 points.
Williams is playing with a shooting guard that could potentially outscore him.
It couldn’t come at a better time. Williams has been hurting, and that explains his long, slow start.
The star guard, who has battled injuries all season, detoxified his body during the All-Star break last months. When Williams was sidelined with inflammation in both ankles, he did a three-day juice cleanse that removed toxins from his body. He also received his third round of cortisone shots and PRP injections. (via New York Post)
Since then, Williams has begun to look like his old self, averaging "21.7 points and 7.1 assists, shooting 45.5 percent from the 3-point arc and 89.5 percent from the free-throw line."
Don't forget, Williams has been considered one of the best point guards in the game over the past seven years. Top five at least.
The fact is, we have yet to see the Deron Williams-Joe Johnson duo at full strength for an extended period of time. If those cortisone shots hold up, this will be one hot finish to the season and a playoffs destined for some upsets.
This could be one of those most dangerous "peaking at the right time" teams.
Either way, it looks like offseason surgery for Williams, according to USA Today.
That could mean an even more successful and dangerous Brooklyn Nets team in 2013-14 if all goes well.