By John Torenli, Sports Editor
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Even without $100 million point guard Deron Williams, the Brooklyn Nets enter the All-Star break looking ready to make the "Big Push" Joe Johnson referred to following Wednesday night's 119-108 victory over the Denver Nuggets in front of 17,251 fans at Downtown's Barclays Center.
While Williams, who has struggled through a myriad of nagging injuries during the Nets' inaugural campaign in our fair borough, rested his swollen ankles for the second straight game, Johnson scored a team-high 26 points and handed out a season-best nine assists as Brooklyn improved to 2-0 without its highest-paid player.
"When you have one of your key guys out, I think it motivates guys to really step up and play a little harder," noted Johnson, who hit five of the Nets' season-high 16 3-pointers to help Brooklyn enter the break with a solid 31-22 record, leaving it 2 1/2 games behind East River rival New York in the Atlantic Division race and fourth overall in the Eastern Conference standings.
For the second straight contest, the Nets relied heavily on one of Williams' backups to spark a strong second half. After rookie Tyshawn Taylor tickled the twine for a season-high 12 points in Monday night's overtime victory over Indiana, it was C.J. Watson's turn to fill up the score sheet.
Following an 0-for-7 performance from the field against the Pacers, Watson lit up the Nuggets for a season-high 25 points, matching Johnson with five big shots from beyond the arc. The Tennessee alum put up 15 points in the third period, when the Nets pulled away for good, finished 8-of-12 from the field and dished out six assists.
"Guys that really hadn’t been playing as much tend to come in and play big minutes and be successful," Johnson said of the Nets' fill-ins at the point. "That’s pretty much what it’s been. C.J. has been playing great. Tyshawn has been playing great. Those guys have really picked up the slack."
After Sunday's ugly home loss to San Antonio, the Nets appeared headed for a disheartening four-day layoff during the NBA's annual showcase, especially with Central Division-leading Indiana and Denver (33-21) coming to Brooklyn, and Williams not able to contribute.
But the come-from-behind victory over the Pacers, coupled with Wednesday's rout of the Nuggets, has Johnson and his teammates thinking big as the break begins.
"We're capable of being one of the top teams," said the six-time All-Star, who won't be joining center Brook Lopez in Houston on Sunday for this year's game. "We just need some consistency. We want to put ourselves in a position to make a big push."
"When we left here Sunday night, we weren't feeling too good coming off a pretty poor half where the Spurs just dominated us," added Carlesimo before noting how proud he was of his resilient unit.
Lopez was his usual ever-steady self against Denver, netting 23 points to go with eight rebounds and two blocked shots. Though he wasn't named a starter, the 7-foot Stanford alum figures to see plenty of playing time in the All-Star Game as the Nets' lone representative.
''I think we've played great team ball. We have confidence in each other," said Lopez, who remains the only player in the NBA averaging at least 17 points, eight rebounds and two blocks per contest this season.
Assuming Williams returns healthy and ready to go when the Nets come back from the break to host Milwaukee in the opener of a home-and-home set next Tuesday night, the "Big Push" will officially be under way.
After 55 years without a major pro sports franchise to call its own, Brooklyn can hardly wait.
In local college hoops news, the Brooklyn College women's team, which will carry an 11-game winning streak into this weekend's conference tournament, had six players honored during Wednesday's luncheon at Manhattan's Water Club to reveal this season's CUNYAC awards.
Brittany Bowen, Tiffany Thompson, Bishop Ford's Vanessa D'Ambrosi and Nicole Francomano were all tabbed CUNYAC All-Stars after helping the Bulldogs capture the second seed in the CUNYAC playoffs with a sparkling 20-5 mark, including 14-2 in league action. Senior guard Charnelle Saint Laurent was the recipient of the Burt Beagle Sportsmanship Award, and Alex Lang grabbed the Coach of the Year honor for the third straight year.
The red-hot Bulldogs will begin their quest for a conference tournament crown Saturday at 1 p.m. when they host CCNY at the West Quad Center.
On the men's side, Brooklynites Kavon Baker and Steven Grant also did BC proud at the luncheon.
Baker, of nearby Midwood High, was named a first-team CUNYAC All-Star while Grant took home the men's version of the Beagle Sportsmanship Award.
“Steven has always exemplified the ultimate sportsmanship on the court and off," Bulldogs coach Steve Podias said of Grant.
The BC men will host Brooklyn rival Medgar Evers Saturday in their playoff opener.
On the high school beat, the young ladies of St. Saviour High School thumped visiting Catherine McCauley for a big Senior Day win Monday.
Departing fourth-year players Elizabeth Teixeira, Alexis James and Kristen Sheridan -- all members of the school's 2010-11 Brooklyn/Queens Diocese B-league championship team -- were feted with flowers prior to the contest.
Hoop du Jour: The Nets' 31 wins at the All-Star break are their most since the 2003-04 season. ... G Watson's five 3-pointers against the Nuggets were a career high. ... Brooklyn's 119 points against Denver were also a season best. ... G Taylor had six points and four assists Wednesday. ... F Kris Humphries had one of his best games of the season against the defensively challenged Nuggets, scoring 14 points and pulling down four rebounds. ... The Nets enter the break with 19 home wins, second only to Miami in the East, and boast a 9-3 record against division opponents -- the best mark in the Atlantic.