NEW YORK – There were two versions of Deron Williams this season, and the Bulls know they need to be playing the first one.
Slumping before the All-Star break and surging after, Williams turned the Brooklyn Nets into a powerful offense down the stretch with precision play that continued right through Game 1 of the playoffs.
The Bulls probably can’t beat the Nets four times if the two-time Olympic point guard is rolling.
But when they defend the way they did in Game 2, making him look like the guy who battled leg pain into February, they love their chances.
So when the series shifts to the United Center for Game 3 on Thursday, all eyes will be on Williams, who will have not only the ball but the entire complexion of the series in his hands.
The Bulls will make him the focus of their defense. Just don’t ask coach Tom Thibodeau to tell you what they will do.
“The thing is, he’s such a smart player,” Thibodeau said. “I don’t think you can give him a steady diet of anything, so try to give him some different looks.”
Williams scored 22 points in the series opener, a 106-89 Brooklyn romp. He was limited to eight points, missing eight of his nine shots, as the Bulls bounced back with a 90-82 victory in Game 2.
Having taken the home-court advantage, the Bulls will try again to take away Williams.
“The Nets are tough,” Thibodeau said. “They’re a very well-balanced team, they play extremely hard, they play together, they have everything. They can break you down off the dribble, they can hurt you in the post, they rebound the ball, so we’ve got our work cut out for us.”
The job becomes much easier when they knock Williams off his game.
The Bulls couldn’t do it in Game 1, when he also had seven assists and was just off the 22.9 points he averaged in 28 games after the All-Star break. Slowed by pain in both ankles that he had treated the week before the break, Williams managed only16.7 points a game in his first 50 disappointing games after agreeing to a five-year extension worth about $98 million in July.
The Nets need Williams to get them playing at a much faster pace than the one the Bulls prefer and got in Game 2 if they want to win at United Center and regain home-court advantage.
“It’s going to be tough. I don’t think it’s going to be easy, but I think we can do it,” Williams said.
Williams wasn’t the Nets’ only problem in Game 2. Joe Johnson shot only 6 of 18 and Gerald Wallace followed his 14-point opener by reverting to the player who struggled throughout the season, finishing with two points and three rebounds while shooting 1 of 7 and being badly outplayed by Luol Deng.
“Obviously, we need more, a lot more offense from a number of more people than we got tonight,” Nets interim coach P.J. Carlesimo said after the game.
But it all starts with Williams, and the Bulls know it.
They wouldn’t let him drive all the way to the rim, making him give the ball up to teammates and living with it when the strategy backfired, such as when Brook Lopez hit a flurry of jumpers from about the same spot on the pick-and-roll in the second quarter. And when the Bulls forced Williams to shoot from the perimeter he couldn’t make them, missing all five from 3-point range, where he set an NBA record with nine in the first half of one game this season.
“We were more aggressive with him,” Bulls guard Kirk Hinrich said. “He’s such a great player and so multifaceted. He can score [off] pick-and-rolls. He’s one of the best point guards in the league. His size and strength. Even when he is not scoring, he does a good job of finding their guys.”
Hinrich, who gives away about 20 points to Williams, was the primary defender and also scored 13 points, two days after banging his hip while getting picked.
“He’s a warrior,” center Joakim Noah said. “I’m just so happy that he’s back on this team because to me he really represents what Chicago Bull basketball is all about, especially right now.”
Neither team practiced Tuesday, and the Bulls will have to hope Noah’s right foot came through OK after he finished with 11 points and 10 rebounds in a spirited effort while battling plantar fasciitis. He looked unable to contribute much in Game 1, scoring four points in 13 minutes, and Deng didn’t help much with only six points.
Both bounced back, joining Carlos Boozer to give the Bulls all three starting frontcourt players with double-doubles. It probably meant the most to Noah, who was playing before friends and family, in the city where he grew up and played in high school, as Brooklyn hosted its first NBA playoff action.
He can’t wait to be back in front of his pro fans.
“It’s a whole other ballgame out there. I mean it’s not even comparable,” Noah said. “I mean, this is a great place to play basketball, but these are new fans here. They’ve been doing this for a long time over there in Chi.
“It’s going to be a battle. We’ll be ready, they’ll be ready.”