By Steve Lichtenstein
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Imagine, if you will …
The Heat were primed to bury the Nets in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals Saturday at Barclays Center.
Up 2-0 already in the best-of-seven series, Miami had proven to be the superior team with their fourth-quarter execution. The Heat’s plan Saturday was to get LeBron James off early and take the wind out of the Nets’ home crowd. The star forward responded by knocking down 6 of 7 shots during a 16-point first quarter.
So the Nets countered with … Mirza Teletovic?
When Nets forward Paul Pierce picked up his fourth foul just 3:38 into the third quarter of a four-point game, Brooklyn coach Jason Kidd turned to Teletovic and asked him to do the seemingly impossible — go toe-to-toe with the best player on the planet.
With help, of course, as you don’t game plan against James by leaving one defender on an island and the Nets’ offense is most efficient when the ball moves to whoever has the best shot.
But let’s not quibble — the bottom line is that Teletovic played somewhat decent defense to force James to misfire on four of his final six shots.
And he outscored the King, 12-10, from that point to keep the Nets alive for another day with a 104-90 victory.
Strange night indeed.
“What Mirza did tonight was big,” said Kidd. “The last few games Mirza’s shot the ball extremely well. That’s what he does. He stretches the defense, he doesn’t lack confidence and that’s what makes him a great player.”
All seven of Teletovic’s field goal attempts — of which he converted four — came from beyond the 3-point line. Late in the third quarter, he had the building rocking after draining a pair of treys 1:24 apart to give the Nets their first double-digit lead of the series.
Teletovic, who struggled during much of the Nets’ first-round series win over Toronto, shooting 25 percent from 3-point range, believes Miami provides a better matchup for the Nets’ 3-point shooters due to the Heat’s gambling on defense. He’s backed it up, shooting almost 58 percent from deep in the three games.
It’s one thing for Teletovic to go on a heat check — he’s got a sweet enough stroke from long distances. But the defense (and rebounding — he accumulated six boards in 19 minutes), that’s a bit out of the ordinary for the second-year Net from Bosnia.
It was one of the main reasons Teletovic was buried on the bench for much of 2012-13. He garnered a grand total of one minute during the Nets’ seven-game first-round loss to Chicago last year.
But one of Kidd’s strengths is imbuing confidence in all his players. Throughout the season, Kidd has found sufficient playing time for a deep roster.
That’s also how he can mix and match with outside-the-box configurations.
Like Saturday, when Kidd plugged forward Andrei Kirilenko into the center slot for short stretches, a position he hadn’t played all season.
In Game 2, Kidd gambled unsuccessfully that Teletovic could fill that role. Unfortunately, the Nets’ defense and rebounding fell apart down the stretch, leading to a 94-82 loss.
However, Kirilenko is more of a master of the little things that win games, and the Nets were able to extend their lead during these periods on Saturday.
“Our job is to prepare for any position at any time,” said Kirilenko, who, if you choose to believe him, denied undergoing any special preparation.
Teletovic, meanwhile, focused on frustrating James, something he did surprisingly well during the regular season. The pair had a small confrontation during a January game in Brooklyn, which ended with an unforgettable Teletovic smirk. That was followed by a streak of possessions where James couldn’t even hit the rim when guarded one-on-one by Teletovic.
It makes no sense — James should be able to get any shot he wants in that match-up. Jump shots, post-ups, drives — it should be one of his easier challenges. Far more inferior players have had their way with Teletovic in the last two seasons.
But, for one game at least, the Nets were in a Twilight Zone. Teletovic got the better of the King. The Nets shot 60 percent from three-point range, setting a franchise record for the playoffs with 15 makes. And Deron Williams scored–the embattled Nets point guard finished with 9 points and 11 assists after earning the wrath of Nets Nation for his bagel in Game 2.
All of which makes Monday’s Game 4 in Brooklyn much more intriguing. One way or another, normalcy will be defined.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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