When players play poorly in the NBA, you hear the same common refrains from their fanbases. He needs to play harder. He has no heart. He does not want it. He has to take it to him! And many more.
From an emotional perspective, those reactions are, in a way, human nature. As a fan, you really, really want to see your team succeed. The team got you into the sport. You buy the gear. You like the sport in general, sure, but nothing quite beats the thrill of your team, your heroes, getting it done. On the flip side? Nothing quite matches the rock bottom feeling of your team not getting it done.
Needless to say, this is the point that Brooklyn Nets’ fans are at with Deron Williams. But I think the opposite is happening. He’s trying too hard.
Garnett made some interesting comments about Deron. He said that Deron’s “biggest problem is Deron,” and that sometimes he has to “pull him aside and . . . say some real s**t to him.”
Then there was this insightful column from The Brooklyn Game, which basically indicates that Deron Williams’ production through three quarters (prior to game 5) has been, at least, ok, and then he’s totally tanked in fourth quarters (http://thebrooklyngame.com/deron-williams-toronto-raptors-fourth-quarter/).
The reason? He’s pressing.
It’s natural to say Deron isn’t competing, or simply doesn’t care about beating the Raptors, beating Kyle Lowry. He isn’t a very emotional player, outwardly, so you don’t see outbursts of emotion, good or bad. He gets surly with the media. His demeanor does not echo, outwardly, any particular passion for the sport.
But what’s really happening, is that Deron is pressing. How does a guy play solid ball in first halves, then disappear in seconds? He presses. He allows his nerves to take over. He starts thinking about how he demanded his organization bring him upgrades. How his owner has a reputation for not responding well to failure. How his teammates are counting on him, proclaimed him as an MVP candidate, call him the head of the snake, and look to him for success. How he knows he is being judged by his peers. How he looks at himself: how he worked on his craft an entire summer, for it all to come down to a few bounces of the ball, a few games deep into the spring. How this Nets team has massive expectations, and how those expectations stand across his shoulders. Suddenly, you’re not just picking up the basketball, doing your thing with it, and just playing. You’re thinking. You’re aiming your jumpers, your free throws. You’re not defending well, because you’re nervous. Your feet feel like lead, because you’re nervous. Your heartrate rises.
Deron’s game 5 was the game changer for me, in terms of demonstrating that the issue with his play right now is his inability to handle the pressure he is feeling to deliver. Deron looked like he wanted absolutely no part of this game, for three quarters. He played hot potato with the basketball. He looked to pass, without looking to make plays. He turned the ball over. He dribbled into crowds. He stifled the offense. He literally looked like he had no idea how to play point guard at the NBA level. It bordered on disturbing to watch.
Then what happened? The Nets went down 26 points, and Deron played an excellent fourth quarter. Any coincidence that, after a bunch of close games in which Deron struggled late, he suddenly played well in a fourth. The reason is plain. This wasn’t about pride, or “wanting it”: guys don’t come into a game not wanting to win, go down 26, and care. This was about a lack of pressure. Down 26, the game story is “the game is over, we’re playing out the string.” So Deron relaxed. Gone was the pressure of having to perform. He simply, played basketball. On instinct. As the game — and every game — is meant to be played. For all the talk of strategy, sports are games of instincts. You train to become a pro athlete, you become extremely fundamentally sound, and when in the heat of battle, you just play instinctual ball.
I can relate to what Deron is feeling. From playing many, many, many tennis matches over the years, in big moments, I know what pressure is like to deal with. You never step on the court like “I don’t want this win, I don’t want to take it to this guy.” But you feel nerves. And sometimes, nerves play tricks on you in important moments. You start missing shots you normally make. Instead of going for the same shots that got you a lead, or got you to this point of your career, you start playing not to lose instead of playing to win: start just hitting in the court and hoping the opponent misses, instead of playing the way you know how to play. Your legs feel heavy. You feel slow. Your decisions are suddenly dumber than they were before.
That’s Deron Williams, right now, in this playoff series. He came out in game 5, he felt the pressure, and he totally folded under it. This isn’t a guy who wants to lose: no player goes through the tireless practice, the training, the grind of the 82 game season, because they want to lose. If he wanted to lose, you wouldn’t see the standout game 1 we saw. Or the spirited play in the fourth quarter of game 5. Or the very solid game 3 start. Or even the beginning of game 4, where he actually played with purpose, before his epic disappearance.
The bottom line is pressure is no excuse for Deron. All athletes face it. When you fail to meet expectations in sports, you face the music. The bottom line: Deron has psyched himself out, and has put way too much pressure on himself.
This is a man who wanted to be in Brooklyn, who raises his family in New York City, who instagrammed photoshops of the team’s roster when it was put together, played an instrumental role in the recruitment of Paul and KG, and has talked — ad nauseum — about needing to be more aggressive, needing to play better, wanting to play better, feeling limited by his ankles, his confidence — you name it, really.
But pressure is a part of sports, and that is something Deron needs to embrace. After all, there’s 16 NBA teams right now: the 14 lottery teams, the Bulls, and the Bobcats: there isn’t a drop of pressure on them right now. Add the Rockets to the list if they lose game 5 tonight.
Pressure is a privilege. It’s something you earn because you have, at least, a decent team, you’re in the playoffs, and you have a chance to accomplish something. The great athletes typically wear that pressure like a badge of honor. After all, I did not lose all of those close tennis matches. You find the ability to believe in yourself, you block everything out, and you get the job done.
It’s time for Deron to stop caving to the pressure, and start playing the loose, care free, instinctual basketball he played at times this season — and at times this series. His game 5 fourth quarter shows the ankles are not the problem. KG is right: it’s all in his head.
D-Will: It’s Time to Chill