Joe Johnson holds the Nets' fate in his hands, disconcertingly

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Joe Johnson ties the game. (NBA.com)
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There wasn't actually much for the Nets to feel good about in their 113-111 victory Tuesday night over the Milwaukee Bucks.

The team's two most important players, Deron Williams and Brook Lopez, provided performances that were downright unsettling, for different reasons.

If any Net made a case for himself it was Joe Johnson, who has turned in many great, late-game moments, and created another one on Tuesday night, making a shot from well beyond the three-point arc at the end of regulation to send the game into overtime. His fallaway jumper at the buzzer in overtime won the game for the Nets.

On the season, Johnson is shooting 9-for-10 in the final minute of games in which the difference is three points or less.

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“I hate to do the comparison to Michael Jordan,” Gerald Wallace said following the game, “but like everybody knew Michael was getting the ball in Chicago for the last-second shot, everybody in the arena knew Joe was getting the ball."

He's no Jordan, obviously. Johnson is having a similar year to the Knicks' J.R. Smith, the difference being that Johnson, making a max salary, was expected to be a great deal more than Smith, who is making less than $3 million this season.

Still, that Johnson is overpaid isn't his fault, and assuming the role of sometime scorer and late-game killer is a good fit on this team, given that the Nets have an all-star center in Brook Lopez, and a star point guard in Deron Williams, now back from injury.

About those two, though: Tuesday night's win obscured some real warning signs.

For Lopez, it was less about his performance and more about how he was used. The best player on the Nets was also the team's leading scorer through three quarters, with 19 points, eight rebounds and three blocked shots. He'd also held his opposite number, Larry Sanders, in check, with Sanders posting a total of eight points and, more significantly, just one rebound. 

But Nets coach P.J. Carlesimo proceeded to bench Lopez for the entire fourth quarter. Andray Blatche, a capable backup, played well in Lopez's place, though Sanders also came alive in the process. But the decision is almost impossible to fathom, given Lopez's talent and role.

"I kept wanting to go back to him but I had in the back of my mind he had just been through the whole All-Star thing,” Carlesimo said of Lopez, referring oddly to Lopez's 11 minutes played on Sunday as some kind of hardship. "And frankly, Dray just kept making plays."

By the time Lopez returned for overtime, his timing was gone, and he missed all four of his shots. The opposite of a large-ego player, Lopez put the performance on himself, and defended his coach's decision.

“I’m disappointed in myself that I came in in overtime and I don’t think I really was there. But the team picked me up,” Lopez said. “I don’t even think it was fatigue. I don’t know if I checked out or what. But I just wasn’t mentally there in overtime.

“It’s on me. Completely on me. I have to be ready whenever he calls my number. But like I said, Dray was great. When he was in he gave us great minutes. It was definitely the right decision.”

Early returns on the coach's decision to play Deron Williams weren't great, either. Yes, Williams managed solid, unspectacular production after missing two games to have injections and rest heal a pair of ankle injuries. 

But Williams, who acknowledged that his movement was still significantly compromised, looked like it for much of the night. His lateral movement improved somewhat, but he lacked any explosiveness whatsoever, and simply didn't get to the basket. His 19 points, nine assists, and six turnovers represented the kind of above-average, but ordinary game he's been regularly putting up for the Nets. He was in visible discomfort after doing things like driving into the lane, jump-stop and passing, or defending the ultra-quick Brandon Jennings.

And in the final moments of regulation, the Nets had the ball, 10 seconds left, down one point. Williams, without the burst of speed he had throughout his career, instead pushed off on his defender, Jennings, to try and create space, and was called for the offensive foul. The creative force the Nets acquired back in February 2011 was nowhere to be found, and the reason, decreased athleticism, was obvious.

And that was after more than a week of rest; Williams will suit up and do it again, on back-to-back nights Wednesday in Milwaukee, having played 45 minutes.

It will be up to the Nets to manage Williams, to better utilize Lopez, and to put themselves in position to win games late.

However, if they do, Joe Johnson will take it from there.

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