Soft is a word you don't want to throw around too much in sports because it's a pretty damning indictment of a team's effort, resolve and character to say that they aren't tough enough to stand up to their opponents.
You've heard whispers about it in relation to the Nets during their recent losing jag and it was impossible to ignore it on Sunday night when the Spurs outscored them by 31 points in the second half of a game played without Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili. When word came Monday afternoon that Deron Williams wouldn't play until after the All-Star Game because he is getting platelet rich plasma therapy on his aching ankles, it was easy to assume that the team would use it as another excuse to let the opposition run them over.
Assumptions were incorrect, however. The Nets hardly played well in Indiana on Monday night, but they didn't play soft either.
After leading by seven points in the fourth, the Nets found themselves facing a four-point deficit with 98 seconds left to play in the game. A couple of free throws, a key sixth foul on Paul George and a Joe Johnson hero shot off the glass sent the game to overtime where the Nets found their footing again and rolled to an 89-84 win.
It helps that the Pacers play offense with a look of fear on their faces even when George is on the floor, but one shouldn't discount the spine that the Nets showed when the game was on the line. Over and over again in this losing streak, the Nets have passed when faced with a chance to stand up for themselves and finally taking the chance paid off for them.
One is forced to wonder if not having Williams on the court helped them make that happen. When Williams is playing, the rest of the Nets have little choice but to defer to him as the engine for everything they do on the court.
Monday night didn't feature the smoothest offensive basketball in the world, but it also didn't feature a clearly hobbled Williams trying to win games at less than 100 percent. Things were a bit more diffuse on Monday, an approach that worked out for them as Tyshawn Taylor, Reggie Evans and Gerald Wallace all made big plays in overtime to ice the game.
That's not to say that a Williams-less approach is going to make this a better Nets team. Winning didn't make the offense any less hideous and, based on other recent results, it's hard to imagine the defense holding too many non-Pacers attacks in the 70s in regulation time.
Having said that, they also aren't going to go anywhere by continuing to rely heavily on Williams when it is clear that Williams can't shoulder his usual load. G.M. Billy King sent some mixed messages about Williams' status on Monday, saying that he didn't fear for Williams over the long-term while continually making references to how a player can struggle one year before rebounding the next.
That essentially means the Nets don't expect to see Williams at 100 percent again this year and the Nets can't continue to pretend that he's some superhuman player who can overcome such obstacles without losing effectiveness. Others have to step up, Williams has to share the burden more easily and the whole team has to be as tough on a nightly basis as they were in Indiana on Monday if this is going to work out under the current circumstances.
It almost certainly won't be pretty to watch, but winning ugly certainly beats the alternative.