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The Deron Williams We Don't Remember

Deron Williams played one great game after a long string of not-so-great ones. It was fun to watch, and a reminder of what we've forgotten about Deron. Among other things.
Photo by Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

At the risk of reading too much into the current state of a faintly doughy and rapidly declining point guard, to watch Deron Williams play basketball is to be confronted with the reality of mortality and human frailty. Not just his, either.

Williams has been a Net for four-and-a-half seasons, and in that time he has been mostly a buyer-beware cautionary tale, and more a ludicrous salary cap figure than a productive basketball player. He left Utah as one of the most highly-regarded players in the league, and is now… not that. Injuries large and small have added up, and his abilities have shriveled and withered in a body that is leeching athleticism and weighed down by the expectations that come with an annual salary of upwards of $15 million.


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As he has struggled to stay afloat, we have had a chance to shake our heads ruefully and remark on how bizarre it is that "Chris Paul or Deron Williams?" used to be an actual discussion. Snorting at the power that question used to have lets us off the hook for the hard work of remembering and reflecting on how good Williams actually was, convincing ourselves that we knew it was Paul all along, that our knowledge and their talent was immutable. This is a lazy, silly thing to do, if mostly a harmless one. But there's something desperate in it, too, a sort of whistling past the graveyard with regards to the certainty that the decline Williams saw will never happen to us.

On Monday night we received a thoroughly unexpected reminder of what Williams was, and, intermittently and tenuously still is. Maybe. Sometimes?

Williams scored 35 points and stuffed the rest of the box score to bursting, leading his Nets to a series-tying 120-115 win over the Atlanta Hawks. This was not just a variant blip of hot shooting, it was a throwback. Williams showed no mercy to DeMarre Carroll's ankles, hit step-backs, blew past defenders and had his way with Dennis Schroeder down in the post. He showed everything he had, the collection of talents that used to be comparable to Paul's—the package that used to make him a legitimate part of the "best point guard in the league" conversation for years. This was Williams as we choose not to remember him.


If pushing him jars him back into playing the way he did the previous 85 games, you're fired. — Photo by Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

Basketball chronology is expressed in seasons, an enormous unit of measure and one that makes Williams' decline feel all the more dramatic. There was no subtle Chauncey Billups slide to it, or a graceful assumption of a different role. Williams very much had it, and then he didn't. But when he did, it was glorious. The standard image of a big point guard is the conventional playmaker skill set simply stretched into a longer set of limbs. Williams was something else entirely, a Frankenstein's monster stitched together from Karl Malone and John Stockton. He could smash or shake you, shoot over the top of most defenders or slide right around any of them. Offense flowed from him and through him.

For five seasons, he was behind a renaissance for the Utah Jazz. When Stockton and Malone retired, a light went out in that organization. They were no longer an institution, just a mediocre basketball team. And then, all of a sudden, there was Williams—a modern spin on the precision and might of Stockton and Malone, all in one body. In his heyday, Williams' physical being was not about explosive athleticism but a vibrant robustness. This is what made his decline so hard to watch and acknowledge. He didn't just get worse. He lost all that brawny healthiness. A certain sense of life just left him.

Williams' Game 4 performance was a living wake. The old master was in the building, the one who could control an offense with a strong and steady hand. The light was on again, and there again were the crossovers, the jumper, the strength and speed. For an evening Williams, and we, had the chance to live in memory, and to not just remember but experience in real time what was so joyful about basketball as Deron Williams played it. More than four season's worth of depressing evidence says those moments of brilliance are unlikely to be strung together in such quantity again. This was a fluke, an eclipse.

So we are left with the bittersweet surprise. The sweetness of a beautiful performance, reminding us of so many other wonderful efforts we've forgotten and ignored, and the bitterness nothing so much as the presence of the present, and the heavy certainty of the future. Nothing lasts forever, not us and certainly not Deron Williams. But another game might be nice.