By John Torenli, Sports Editor
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Deron Williams has heard it all this season.
His scoring, shooting and assist numbers are down. He's worn out and, some even hinted, out of shape following a busy summer helping Team USA grab a second straight gold medal in London. He allegedly hastened the early departure of Avery Johnson by citing his inability to function properly in the raspy-voiced coaches' offense. And worst of all, he hasn't come up big in late-game situations when the Nets needed their $100 million point guard the most.
What you haven't heard enough is how Williams has bravely played through a myriad of nagging injuries, including a sprained wrist, a pair of swollen ankles and, most recently, a painful calf contusion, to keep Brooklyn in the thick of the hunt for the Atlantic Division crown and a premium slot in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Based on his performance Tuesday night in the Big Easy, Williams may soon force his naysayers to emphasize the positive when assessing his first season as our borough's fearless floor leader.
Despite the absence of injured backcourt mate Joe Johnson, Williams scored 33 points and handed out eight assists to propel the Nets to a 101-97 victory over the Hornets in front of 12,651 fans at New Orleans Arena, helping Brooklyn climb within 1 1/2 games of first-place New York in the Atlantic race.
More importantly, the 6-3 playmaker out of Illinois shook off a dismal late fourth-quarter performance from Sunday evening's ugly 76-72 home loss to Memphis at the Barclays Center to end a two-game slide by the Nets (34-24).
''I especially wanted to step up after how the last game went down the stretch for me personally,'' noted Williams, who failed in his attempt to score the go-ahead basket before committing a key turnover down the stretch against the Grizzlies 48 hours earlier.
"It feels good to get it going, especially down the stretch and be able to close out a game," he added, moments after scoring the Nets' final 11 points to hold off a late New Orleans run. "It's something I've kind of struggled with this year and I was really successful at it most of my career, so it feels good to be able to finally have a game like that.''
Johnson, who has emerged as Brooklyn's top finisher in his first full season with the Nets, was unavailable for duty for the third consecutive game due to a bruised heel on his left foot. C.J. Watson started alongside Williams and contributed 10 points while All-Star center Brook Lopez had a bounce-back game with 20 points, seven rebounds and five assists after sitting out long stretches of the fourth quarter in each of his previous three games.
But when the Hornets threatened to erase a 22-point deficit and hand the Nets what would have been a brutal third consecutive defeat, Williams drilled a clutch 3-pointer followed by a fadeway jumpshot and six free throws to help Brooklyn escape with the win.
''When he plays like that, we are hard to beat," noted Nets interim coach P.J. Carlesimo, who backed his wounded but willing floor leader last week in a radio interview by admitting Williams was operating at significantly less than 100 percent on a night-in, night-out basis.
"Deron made all the right calls down the stretch. Those were his calls, and we executed," added Lopez after getting the best of twin brother Robin, who finished with 14 points and seven boards for the Southwest Division-worst Hornets (20-38).
Williams will get a couple of days off before the Nets host Dallas in Downtown Brooklyn on Friday night before heading to Chicago for a Saturday night contest with the Bulls. With Johnson expected to return over the weekend and Lopez regaining the confidence that made him the Nets' most consistent player during the first half of the season, Brooklyn appears poised for another run at first place.
"I just want to be there for my team," said Williams.
Whether his detractors have noticed or not, he has been there virtually all season long.
In local high school hoops news, sophomore Jahlil Tripp scored 26 points, grabbed nine rebounds and handed out six assists Tuesday afternoon to lead 13th-seeded Brooklyn Collegiate to a 79-52 first-round playoff win over Eagle Academy as the Class AA PSAL postseason began on Bergen Street. Junior Adrian Williams added 16 points for the Lions, who will meet No. 4 Wings Academy on Friday in the round of 16.
On the private school baseball scene, Poly Prep senior pitcher Andrew Zapata was selected to the Louisville Slugger High School Pre-Season All American team, the Bay Ridge School announced Wednesday.
The writers of the Collegiate Baseball newspaper select the pre-season team. According to the staff of Collegiate Baseball newspaper, “The players on this list represent not only amazing athletic ability and talent in their respective positions, but also are among the most sought after players by pro scouts and college recruiters. The majority of the players have already committed to a college and most have received national recognition already. Many were players of the year in their league, region or state and have already racked up a number of awards.”
Zapata has been Poly’s staff ace for the past three seasons, helping the Blue Devils to back-to-back New York State Championships the past two years.
“It is a testament to the hard work that Andrew has put in during his four years at Poly,” Poly head coach Matt Roventini said. “We look forward to another big year by Andrew, hopefully with the same result as the past two years with Andrew on the mound.”
The Blue Devils kick off their season on Thursday against visiting Brunswick.
Hoop du Jour: G Johnson was active during shooting drills prior to Tuesday night's game, but was deemed unfit to go just prior to tip-off. "We definitely miss Joe out there, and we thought he was going to go until right before the game," Williams said. ... The Nets have a three-day break coming after their back-to-back meetings with Dallas and Chicago this weekend. ... C Lopez always gets a kick out of squaring off against his twin brother. The two were teammates at Stanford. "It's always fun playing Robin. Not many people in the world get to experience this," noted Brook. ... The Nets had lost their previous four visits to New Orleans prior to Tuesday's victory. ... The Nets improved to 20-10 since Carlesimo took over for Avery Johnson in late December.