By John Torenli, Sports Editor
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Give the Nets credit. They've gone a long way toward erasing any doubt that they will end their five-year playoff drought in what is shaping up as an historic first season here in Downtown Brooklyn.
By beating up on the NBA's lesser teams -- they improved to a perfect 17-0 against opponents with sub-.500 records after Monday night's 97-77 blowout of the visiting Orlando Magic -- the Nets (27-18) have built the fourth-best record in the Eastern Conference. They also sit just 1 1/2 games behind East River rival New York for first place in the Atlantic Division, boast a gaudy 17-7 mark at Barclays Center, including wins in each of their last eight home contests, and have already matched the franchise record for victories in January with 11.
So what's left to prove?, you may ask.
Beginning with Wednesday night's much-anticipated showdown with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and the defending NBA champion Miami Heat, the Nets will begin a stretch of games designed to challenge their mettle as a legitimate title contender.
They will open February with a Friday night matchup against the Chicago Bulls, host Kobe Bryant and the underachieving Lakers next Tuesday night and welcome Tim Duncan and perennial Western Conference powerhouse San Antonio to the corners of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues on Feb. 10.
"We're pretty confident, we understand that we have three tough games coming up,'' said Nets shooting guard Joe Johnson after scoring 13 points on 5-of-10 shooting and dishing out five assists against the Magic. ''We want to take it one game at a time, prepare hard for Miami and come out with the same focus and intensity that we had tonight and we're going to try to dictate the pace of the game.''
In between their home contests against elite franchises, the Nets will also visit lesser foes like Detroit and Washington next week.
But according to Brooklyn point guard Deron Williams, he and his teammates aren't rating wins according to degree of difficulty, especially after bringing up the rear in the Atlantic Division the past several seasons.
"We've taken care of the teams we're supposed to take care of," Williams noted after putting up 20 points and nine assists during Monday's victory in front of 16,840 Brooklyn faithful. "We haven't played as well as we need to against the playoff teams. But we've had some good wins against good teams."
Williams is right. The Nets knocked off defending West champion Oklahoma City to start January, earned a 2-2 season series split with the division-leading Knicks and handled East contender Indiana earlier this month.
But they still haven't come close to beating the Heat, who buried the Nets in South Beach 103-73 during the first week of the season, and opened December with a 102-89 victory over Brooklyn in Miami.
"The first time we played [the Heat], we had them down and then they just made adjustements at halftime and ran us out of the building," Williams admitted. "It's a good test for us. I think we're a different team than the last two times we played them. We're playing better."
"We just need to play the way we're capable of playing," added veteran guard Keith Bogans, who led the Nets' "Bench Mob" with 12 points Monday night, hitting 4-of-7 3-pointers. "[The Heat] beat us twice down there."
By completing a season sweep of the Magic for the first time since the 2003-04 campaign, the Nets ended their first losing streak -- albeit a rough two-game stretch in Memphis and Houston on the back end of an otherwise solid four-game road trip -- of the P.J. Carlesimo era. The interim coach has guided Brooklyn to victories in 13 of 17 games since taking over for Avery Johnson in late December.
"We needed to stop the bleeding. It was a lot better than the last two games," Williams said.
The Nets will catch the Heat fresh off their Monday morning visit to the White House, where President Obama gushed over the reigning champs, prompting King James to exclaim, "Mama, I made it!"
If Brooklyn can complete its first nine-game home winning streak since the 2005-06 season with a statement victory over the Heat, Nets fans may be overcome with a similar sentiment. Though their choice of words will doubtlessly be much different.
In other Barclays Center news, the Feb. 9 fight card at the state-of-the-art arena has officially been pushed back to April 27 after it was revealed Monday that headliner Danny "Swift" Garcia, scheduled to take on Brooklyn's own Zab Judah, suffered a rib injury during training.
Garcia, who opened the Barclays back in October with a knockout win over Erik Morales, was set to defend his Unified Super Lightweight World Championship on the SHOWTIME-televised card.
Golden Boy Promotions issued a statement assuring Brooklyn boxing enthusiasts that all tickets purchased for the Feb. 9 event would be honored on April 27.
Hoop du Jour: Though he got snubbed when the East reserves were announced last Thursday night, Nets C Brook Lopez remains an All-Star at Barclays Center, as evidenced by the "All-Star" chants he received during Monday night's 16-point performance in just under 28 minutes of playing time. "I did [hear the fans chanting]," said Lopez, who still could get an invite to Houston later this month in place of injured Celtics G Rajon Rondo. "I'm thankful we have support out here like that. We have great fans that continue to support us night in and night out, and I am glad they are here for us." ... F Reggie Evans, the NBA leader in boards per 48 minutes, grabbed 10 rebounds against the Magic, marking the team-high 18th time this season he has reached double digits in caroms. ... The Nets recalled G Tyshawn Taylor and F Tornike Shengelia from Springfield of the NBA Developmental League on Monday.