By Steve Lichtenstein
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The whistle’s coming any second now.
Sitting at my computer a good hour after the conclusion of the Nets’ improbable 88-87 win in Miami on Tuesday night, I feared that if I turned on TNT, they’d be showing LeBron James at the free throw line –shooting two.
NBA refs couldn’t have allowed Nets center Mason Plumlee — a rookie, no less — to get away with a block of the King just two ticks from the final buzzer, could they?
After all, it seemed that James was somehow able to activate one particular official’s whistle all night merely upon his high-pitched scream. Sometimes it would be a few seconds prior to his shot attempt, sometimes multiple seconds afterwards. James went to the line 14 times Tuesday night — the same number of trips the entire Nets team earned all game.
That’s the way it’s always been in the NBA. Superstars get superstar treatment from the refs.
Just not this one time.
With the Nets holding a one-point lead in the closing seconds, Miami took off on a fast break when James received a pass from Rashard Lewis in the middle of the paint. James went up strong for the potential game-winning dunk only to be denied by the strong right hand of Plumlee.
At that point, it seemed like time stopped, as the Heat stood still under the assumption that a whistle would be blown. The King had spoken.
Only he wasn’t obeyed. Plumlee knocked the ball into the hands of Nets guard Marcus Thornton, who dribbled out the clock to give the Nets a four-game sweep of their season series with the two-time defending champs. That’s the first time any team has done that to Miami in the Big Three era.
From the replay, it was clear to me that Plumlee knocked the ball out of James’ hand cleanly before following through with a slap on James’ hand. I’ve seen plenty worse let go by NBA refs at the end of games.
The debate will rage for the next 24 hours as to whether a foul should have been called on Plumlee (or possibly on Thornton or Joe Johnson, who each took swipes at James before he elevated, though no angle I saw was conclusive).
After that, both teams will settle down to complete their respective regular seasons. Miami should have little trouble holding off slumping Indiana for the top seed in the Eastern Conference while the Nets seem to be ensconced in the fifth position.
But if the Nets are able to survive a first-round battle without home-court advantage over either Toronto or Chicago, that would likely set up a very interesting matchup in the conference semifinals.
The Nets and Heat have little nice to say about each other, so they say little or nothing at all. Miami clearly owns the bragging rights with three consecutive trips to the NBA Finals and the two banners.
However, these Nets have shown no fear of the Heat. Miami doesn’t present an imposing front line that tends to give the traditional power forward-lacking Nets fits on the glass. Indeed, it’s the Nets’ “small-ball” configuration that allows Brooklyn coach Jason Kidd to give James multiple looks through switches.
All four games in the season series have been nail-biters. The Nets won three games by one point and the other required two overtimes before the Nets could secure a nine-point triumph.
In each game, there were times I worried that the Nets would fold. Instead, the Nets have been able to make enough plays on both ends to do what was necessary to come away with victories.
Before his monster swat on Tuesday, Plumlee made a leaping block of an attempted Chris Bosh runner with just under two minutes left and then finished off a brilliant feed from Deron Williams for the game-deciding points with 41 seconds remaining. In the last two minutes, the Nets scored on three of their four possessions.
That’s the type of execution the Nets will need to challenge the East’s elite in two weeks.
Until then, both teams will focus on getting healthy, as Brooklyn played Tuesday’s game without centers Kevin Garnett (maintenance day) and Andray Blatche (illness), while Miami was missing guard Dwyane Wade and forward Udonis Haslem from its starting lineup.
And, should the two teams face each other in the postseason, the series will start 0-0, not 4-0. Those earlier games only count in the regular-season standings.
Just checking one more time — that last one still counted as a Nets win, right?
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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