But can Brooklyn beat Miami when it counts?
By John Torenli, Sports Editor
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Rookie center Mason Plumlee and the rest of the Nets beat their chests with glee following Tuesday night’s landmark 88-87 victory over the two-time defending NBA champion Heat before a stunned crowd of 19,600 in Miami’s American Airlines Arena.
Plumlee’s improbable and hotly disputed block of four-time NBA MVP LeBron James’ bid for a game-winning dunk in the final seconds gave Brooklyn a clean 4-0 season series sweep (6-0 if you count a pair of preseason victories) of the Heat.
It also provided the Nets (43-34) with an abundance of confidence if they should happen to see Miami again come playoff time.
Since James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh came together in the summer of 2010, kicking off an era in which the Heat would win three consecutive Eastern Conference titles and back-to-back NBA crowns, no team has managed to sweep a four-game season series from them.
Until now, that is.
''They're a good team,'' Miami coach Erik Spoelstra confessed after his team suffered its third one-point defeat of the season to Brooklyn, in addition to a double-overtime setback earlier this year.
''They're one of the hotter teams since All-Star break,” Spoelstra added, citing Brooklyn’s 33-13 record since a dismal 10-21 start to the campaign. “Every single one of these games, however you want to slice it, however you get to that point, there are plays to be made in the fourth quarter. And for whatever reason, they've made more plays.''
None of those plays was more startling than Plumlee’s rejection of James, who appeared poised to put Miami in front with a thunderous jam before the 7-footer from Duke flashed under the basket and pushed the ball out of his right hand.
“The King” took exception to the non-call on the play as Plumlee clearly made contact after getting a good piece of the ball.
''He grabbed my right hand,'' James said after scolding the officials on his way off the floor. ''He didn't do it on purpose, but he got my right hand.''
''It was a foul from my vantage point,” added Spoelstra.
Regardless of how you saw it, the Nets came out on top of the Heat yet again, inching within a game of climbing a season-high 10 above .500, pending the outcome of Wednesday’s visit to Orlando.
Despite the win, Brooklyn appears entrenched in the No. 5 hole in the Eastern Conference playoff race, meaning they’d once again face the Chicago Bulls in the opening round of the upcoming postseason.
Last April, the Nets suffered a gut-wrenching Game 7 loss to a severely shorthanded Chicago squad at Barclays Center in the first round, denying them an opportunity to face the Heat in the conference semifinals.
That defeat prompted ownership to put together the highest payroll in NBA history, acquiring the likes of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Andrei Kirilenko and Shaun Livingston, in the hopes of dethroning Miami.
But they have to get to the second round first.
When asked if the Nets posed the biggest threat to the Heat’s reign come playoff time, James was quick to laugh off the question and quickly went on to the next one.
Though he was clearly enthused by his team’s ability to not only stay with, but beat the Heat four times in a single regular season, first-year Nets head coach Jason Kidd wasn’t about to preen over sweeping the champs.
“That’s just basketball,” Kidd stated matter-of-factly. “You have the best player in the world going against a rookie and we got lucky.”
All-Star shooting guard Joe Johnson, who led the Nets with 19 points in the hard-fought win, didn’t shy away from the gravity of his team’s accomplishment.
“We know we can play with any team in this league, and we’ve proven that,” he noted. “So we’ve just got to keep coming out and showing it.”
In a little over two weeks time, the Nets will have to show it on the NBA’s biggest stage, likely traveling to Chicago for Games 1 and 2 of their opening-round playoff series.
And just like last year, they’ll have to prove they can beat the Bulls just to earn the opportunity to continue their season-long mastery of the Heat.
Pierce, who had his share of memorable postseason clashes with James and the Heat during his days in Boston, knows that four regular-season wins over Miami does not a champion make.
“We know if we’re going to try to win the championship this year we’re probably going to have to go through Miami,” he admitted.
Barring another first-round flop against Chicago, the Nets might get their chance.
James, the fiercest competitor and best player the league has seen since Kobe Bryant, wouldn’t mind another shot at Brooklyn, either.
“They’ve had our number so far this year,” James finally ceded.
In other words, so far, so good, so what?
Nothing But Net: After missing more than a month due to back spasms, F-C Garnett sat out Tuesday’s game in Miami after returning to the hardwood this past weekend in Philadelphia. Garnett, however, is expected back in the lineup Wednesday in Orlando as the Nets hope to close out a perfect 3-0 road trip. … The Nets will return home Friday to take on the Hawks, who are trying to hold off the Knicks for the Eastern Conference’s eighth and final playoff spot. Brooklyn will also host Orlando at the Barclays Center on Sunday.