Improve to 3-0 against two-time defending NBA champs
By John Torenli, Sports Editor
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
To be the best, you have to beat the best.
Despite their fifth-place standing in the Eastern Conference, the Brooklyn Nets have proven quite adept at living up to that long-standing sports cliché during their second season in our fair borough.
Spearheaded by yet another brilliant effort by Paul Pierce and the deadeye shooting of Mirza Teletovic, the Nets improved to a perfect 3-0 against the two-time defending NBA champion Heat with Wednesday night’s scintillating 96-95 triumph in Miami.
“This is the class of the league,” said Pierce, a former NBA Finals MVP, after pouring in 29 points on 9-of-12 shooting in just over 31 minutes. “This is the two-time defending champions, and we're coming down the stretch. These games are big."
Brooklyn (33-30) is now an Eastern Conference-best 23-9 since New Year’s Day, erasing a dismal 10-21 start that threatened to stick them with the moniker “The Worst Team Money Could Buy” after owner Mikhail Prokhorov shelled out an NBA-record $180 million in payroll this season.
The Nets have won seven of their last eight games overall, but none was bigger than Wednesday’s narrow triumph over LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and the Heat, who also dropped both their exhibition contests to Brooklyn before the season began.
Teletovic poured in 17 points off the bench, providing potent scoring punch when Pierce took a break from his sharp-shooting, and Shaun Livingston added 13 points and the game-sealing steal on Miami’s final possession as the buzzer sounded on the Nets’ biggest regular-season win to date.
Pierce, who scored 17 of his points during a torrid third-quarter run, also knocked down the go-ahead basket for the second straight game on a driving layup with just over two minutes to go that snapped a 92-92 deadlock.
The former Celtic great went a perfect 5-for-5 from 3-point range and has more than picked up the slack for the absence of long-time teammate Kevin Garnett, who sat out his seventh consecutive game with back spasms.
"Once I knocked down a couple of threes, it opened up the lane for me to get to the hole,” said Pierce, who made a game-winning 3-pointer Monday night against Atlantic Division-leading Toronto at the Barclays Center.
"He was on fire,” Nets coach Jason Kidd added. “Paul was knocking down shots and was spreading out the defense. Paul is an unselfish competitor and that's what the team is all about. I think Paul has been off the charts."
Though he hinted before the campaign began that he expected to play a secondary role on the offensive side behind the likes of Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez, Pierce has assumed primary leadership responsibilities both on the floor and in the Nets’ locker room.
"I'm sure his antenna is raised in games like this," said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. "When the ball leaves his hands, you are thinking the worst on this side."
Chris Bosh led Miami with 24 points, Wade had 22 and James was held to 19 for Miami, which has dropped four of five since an eight-game winning streak.
Though they are highly unlikely to meet them in the opening round of the playoffs, the Nets can take solace and puff out their chests a bit in knowing they have had the Heat’s number this year, at least through the first three meetings.
Brooklyn won in Miami for the first time in eight visits and had lost 13 in a row overall in the series before edging the Heat, 101-100, in Brooklyn on Nov. 1. The Nets also set the champs home unhappy, 104-95, at Barclays on Jan. 10.
Just don’t try to convince Kidd that his Nets have anything over the team that has represented the East in the last three NBA Finals.
At least not yet.
''We haven't had any success [against them],'' the first-year head coach humbly stated. ''We've just been lucky to win some games.''
The Nets will try their luck against the Heat again on April 8 in Miami in the final regular-season meeting between the teams.
Nothing But Net: Though he sat out his second straight game with an ankle injury, F Andrei Kirilenko is expected to give it a go Saturday night in Washington against the Wizards. … Teletovic was 6-of-11 from the floor Wednesday and scored in double-digits for the first time since Feb. 12, when he put up 13 against Charlotte. … After visiting the Wizards, the Nets will return to Brooklyn for a three-game homestand, beginning with Monday night’s game against Phoenix. Brooklyn will also host Charlotte on Wednesday and Boston next Friday. Brooklyn is a half-game in front of Washington for the fifth seed in the East. … Williams (6 points) and Johnson (8 points) went a combined 4-for-18 from the floor against Miami. “Paul's got too much left in the tank to be a role player,'' said Williams of Pierce’s emergence as the Nets’ go-to guy down the stretch. … Of Brooklyn’s 19 remaining games, 10 will be played at Barclays Center, where the Nets have won a season-high eight in a row. … The Nets are three games behind Toronto in the hunt for the Atlantic Division title.