Off Benching, Williams Stars as Nets Tie Series with Hawks

Paul Pierce probably won’t believe it, but Deron Williams is clutch.

It wasn’t just his former Nets teammate who dumped on Williams for not being able to cope with the pressure of playing in New York. He had been ridiculed after the Nets’ Game 3 win against the Atlanta Hawks because he had benched for the final 16 minutes. Combined with his struggles in the first two games, he never looked worse than he did in this first-round series that was supposed to be a walk-over for the top team in the East.

But now the Nets are tied 2-2 with the team that won 60 games in the regular-season, largely because Williams had his finest game as a Net. He put on a show in Barclays Center on Monday night that might serve to quiet his critics, at least temporarily.

The Nets were 12 minutes from going down 3-1, with Game 5 back in Atlanta on Wednesday, when Williams put his team on his back. He shot the Nets back into the game and back into this series, scoring 16 of his 35 points in the fourth quarter of Brooklyn’s 120-115 overtime win.

“The kid has overcome a lot of adversity, with all of the injuries and the negativity around his name,’’ Nets coach Lionel Hollins said. “For him to come out and put on a performance that he did … if he didn’t have this performance, I don’t know if we come out of here with a win.’’

Probably not.

Without Williams’ tying his career playoff high, they’re probably on the brink of elimination, with all kinds of questions about what happens next to GM Billy King and how this franchise moves forward with its massive payroll, without any cap flexibility for the next few seasons, and without its own No. 1 draft pick for another four years.

But now they’re not facing such a dire situation, while the Hawks have to be wondering what happened to the magical season they were having only a few weeks ago.

Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer won four titles as an assistant coach with San Antonio and was the NBA’s Coach of the Year this season. He might have hit on what’s going on after seeing Williams bring the Nets single-handedly back from an 82-72 deficit late in the third.

“It’s the playoffs,’’ he said. “It’s not the regular-season.’’

It sure isn’t the regular-season, when the Hawks easily swept the four meetings with Brooklyn. Williams made sure of that when he scored 13 points in the first 5:00 of the fourth, with his back-to-back triples putting the Nets ahead by five. But the Hawks didn’t win the East in a runaway over LeBron James’ Cavs by accident. They move the ball as well as any team this side of the Spurs, and can shoot it better than most. So it was no surprise that they battled back to tie the game at 104 with 16 seconds left on Paul Millsap’s driving, uncontested dunk.

That’s when Williams had a chance to win it in regulation. He might have taken his turnaround on the baseline a little too quickly, with six seconds left, when he could have used more of the clock to get off a better look. But Hollins said he drew up the play to shoot it early, so Williams was only following orders. And anyway, who was going to argue with what he was doing on this night?

Certainly not Hollins, who went out of his way to defend his struggling veteran on Sunday with an impassioned plea for the media to lay off Williams.

“It definitely means a lot and I thanked him after the game,’’ Williams said. “It means a lot when you’re struggling. When your coach defends you it shows how much he cares about not just me, but the players. I wasn’t helping the team too much.’’

All he had done in the first three games was bring more criticism on himself, with good reason. He has never lived up to his $100 million max contract that still has two seasons to run. But this was his low point, coming when he missed the shot at the end of Game 2 in Atlanta that could have forced overtime. Then came his benching on Saturday when everyone saw that the Nets didn’t need him to win a big playoff game. Pierce, fresh off the Wizards’ sweep of Toronto, must have figured it was just par for the course.

Who knew how Williams would respond in Game 4? As he admitted, “I have a tendency to get down on myself pretty hard, pretty quick.’’

But he found a way to stay positive and put together his best game since coming over from Utah what seems like 10 years ago. And did the Nets ever need it on this night.

Deron Williams was plenty clutch when it counted, if Paul Pierce wants to know the truth.

Longtime New York columnist Mitch Lawrence continues to write about pro basketball, as he’s done for the last 22 years. His columns for on the Knicks, Brooklyn Nets and the NBA, along with other major sports, will appear twice weekly. Follow him on Twitter @Mitch _ Lawrence.

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