4:53 pm Jan. 31, 2013
The Brooklyn Nets entered Wednesday night's game against the Miami Heat in position to make a statement. And they made plenty of them before the game even started.
“It doesn’t prove nothing,” Nets forward Reggie Evans told the Daily News when asked what it would mean to beat the defending champs. “That was a lockout season.” Evans went on to describe LeBron James, the league's best player, as "no different from Joe Johnson or Andray Blatche."
James apparently disagreed, and went about proving it during a 105-85 Heat victory Wednesday night. Almost two hours before the game started, James bounced his way into the Heat locker room, obviously amped up, loudly trumpeting his entrance for reporters standing nearby awaiting Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, yelling, "The king is here!" as he practically jumped through the locker room door.
But James was hardly the only one to recognize the elevated stakes of the game, hours before the 8 p.m. tipoff. Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov flew in to attend the game. There had been speculation that Prokhorov had come to discuss interim coach P.J. Carlesimo's future, but Carlesimo had a different theory.
"I don't think he's coming in to see me," Carlesimo said during his pregame press conference. "I think the fact that it was Miami and [Friday night's opponent] Chicago might have had a little something to do with it. Two pretty good games to come in and see the team. I don't think he was sitting in Moscow the other day, thinking, 'You know, I have to go see P.J.'"
An excited crowd filled the Barclays Center to capacity for similar reasons. After a 14-14 start, the Nets had managed a 13-4 mark under Carlesimo. A win over Miami could have lifted the Nets to within two games of the Heat for the top record in the Eastern Conference. Center Brook Lopez was named to his first all star team prior to game time, the honor elevating the star power in the nationally televised game that much further.
Miss America, Mallory Hagan, was even on hand to sing tha national anthem. (Hagan, before she was Miss America or Miss New York, had been Miss Brooklyn.)
Early on, however, James lifted his game to justify the larger spotlight and answer the critique from Evans, dominating in every capacity the way James so frequently does. He scored nine points, taking ten shots. But he also managed to collect three assists, and grabbed four rebounds, both highs for the quarter. Deron Williams, sick with the flu, missed the only two shots he took. After a quarter, the Heat led, 30-20, and it wasn't clear how the Nets would compete.
But compete they did, thanks to Carlesimo recognizing a way to do so. The Heat have struggled with interior defense all season, using ball pressure on the perimeter to limit this weakness. But unlike most other teams in the league, the Nets have a pair of efficient interior scorers in Lopez and Andray Blatche. The two had played just 42 minutes together all season, with Blatche typically spelling Lopez. But for nearly five minutes in the second quarter, the Nets deployed them both, and the two combined for 16 points in that time, helping the Nets to draw even by halftime, 49-49.
That's when James decided to get serious and end the game. In the third quarter, he scored another 10 points, added two assists and two rebounds, and seemed to be everywhere.
Carlesimo countered with the Blatche/Lopez lineup at the 6:15 mark, but Miami was ready, concentrating on the two big men and leaving the Nets' backcourt free to do what it wished. Williams, though, just didn't have the ability to make the most of his new freedom, while Johnson, seemingly keen on sharpening the contrast with James, had one of his worst games of the season as well, shooting 4-for-15 despite consistently open looks.
By the end of the third quarter, the Heat had outscored the Nets, 36-14, led 85-63, and all of the playoff energy had exited the Barclays Center. The crowd itself soon followed, long before the game officially concluded.
A triumphant LeBron James held court with reporters in the visiting locker room before even showering, brandishing the box score that served as proof the Nets were not in Miami's class yet. “I’m not going to sit here and give Reggie Evans a lot of press because that’s what’s going to happen," James said as he stood in front of his locker, speaking to a mass of reporters that took up most of the remaining locker room space. "I’m going to give him a lot of press and people going to talk about Reggie Evans for the next couple of days when he probably wouldn’t be talked about.”
But he proceeded to do just that. "Let me look at his numbers real quick. He had no offensive rebounds, so we did our number on him," James said.
For his part, Evans made a hasty exit postgame, bolting out the door as reporters were first led into the Nets' locker room.
Instead of Evans, the reports managed to speak to Deron Williams, who was a study in green, between his dark green puffer coat and perspiring greenish complexion, befitting a man who just played an N.B.A. game with the flu.
"My energy was low," a subdued Williams said of his ability to weather the illness following the game. He'd finished with just nine points, and committed six turnovers. "I had a spurt, and then kind of got drained there."
Reporters let the obviously ill Williams go after just three questions.
Lopez, the newly-minted all star across the room, didn't seem to have any answers as to why things fell apart so quickly.
"I honestly don't know if it was as much what they were doing as how careless we were with the ball," Lopez said as he stood at his locker, occasionally stroking a bandaged chin from a shot he received from the Heat's Chris Bosh. "I mean, I don't really want to say careless, but we turned the ball over a lot. I lost the ball a few times myself, and some shots that we normally hit just didn't go down."
But forward Gerald Wallace, when it was his turn to hold court at his locker, didn't shy away from criticizing the Nets' performance.
"They're the defending champions, but I don't think they're much better than us," Wallace said, clearly frustrated. "I don't think they're 20 points better than us. I'm not saying they can't beat us, but they're not 20 points better. They've embarrassed us three times. What does that say for us as a team trying to be a championship team?"
To Wallace, for all the growth the team has exhibited under Carlesimo, the third quarter served as a reminder that the championship aspirations of the owner simply aren't reality yet.
"Typical Nets basketball," Wallace said. "We don't play together. Careless turnovers. We don't execute offensively. And defensively, we don't do anything. We don't defend. We don't guard the ball. We don't help each other out. It's the same story as it's been all season."