By Steve Lichtenstein
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It’s been an interesting experiment.
Could the Nets’ quantity extinguish the Heat’s quality? Would the depth up-and-down Brooklyn’s roster be enough to keep pace with Miami’s Big Three and dethrone the two-time defending champions?
In the end, and as it’s been since I started watching the NBA some 40 years ago, it’s a stars’ league.
It’s rare for teams to win a title without a transformational player. Not just an All-Star, but one who produces at such a high level that it elevates the rest of the team.
The Heat have LeBron James, who torched host Brooklyn for 49 points on Monday to give Miami a commanding 3-1 lead in their best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinal series after a 102-96 win.
And that’s all that really mattered.
Sure, Dwyane Wade chipped in with 15 points and Chris Bosh nailed the go-ahead three-pointer with 57 seconds left in Monday’s game.
But if the Nets could have held James to say, 30 points, they would have won this one going away like they did in Game 3. That’s how inconsequential the Heat’s supporting cast has become.
Now all Miami needs to end the Nets’ season and advance to the conference finals for the fourth straight year is to hold serve at home on Wednesday. If the Heat go all the way to three-peat, it will be because James willed it so.
Even if you discount all the benefits James gets from the refs–the non-calls on obvious travels and off-hand push-offs, plus the late-whistle bailouts that helped put him on the free throw line an astounding 19 times on Monday–you still have to give him his due for his unparalleled shot-making.
Yes, the Nets’ defense in the paint on Monday was abhorrent, especially in the first half, but no one converts as many high-degree-of-difficulty attempts like the King.
The Nets threw everyone but coach Jason Kidd himself on James to no avail. Double teams had no effect. When the Nets guarded him tight, James took his man down low and bulled his way for scores. When the Nets gave him space, he hit jump shots from uncommon range or used a running start to rumble down the lane with the force of a freight train.
“Tonight he (James) didn’t settle,” said Kidd. “He put pressure on our defense. That being said, with 49 points, the game was tied and we still had a chance to win.”
Unfortunately, the Nets don’t have anyone who can go off like that on a regular basis. Joe Johnson has been their best player all year–the Nets wouldn’t have survived against the Raptors in the first round had Johnson not carried the team on his back the last few games.
He’s just not within James’ rare species as a player.
Johnson missed three shots over the final 1:16. The middle one was particularly galling as Johnson thought he had James fouled out after the two bumped in the lane, which Johnson said threw off his shot.
“He (James) flopped,” said Johnson. “I should have known they (the refs) wouldn’t call a foul.”
Again, James is a superstar and gets that treatment. It’s in the NBA constitution, under the LeBron James Protection Act (as amended following the retirements of Larry Bird and Michael Jordan).
Of course, the Nets have another player who they pay like a superstar.
Apologies for the redundant analysis, but point guard Deron Williams, who earns maximum money, once again posted miniature results when it mattered most on Monday.
You always wonder with D-Will whether his chronically sore ankles are a hindrance, but he looked pretty spry in the first half. The three fouls he incurred hurt his numbers more than any injury.
But oh that second half.
With the game seesawing back-and-forth, Williams shot 2-for-9 over the final 24 minutes.
He also committed a potentially devastating turnover near the end of the third quarter, throwing a lazy pass that James easily intercepted. It led to a clear-path foul on Brooklyn swingman Alan Anderson, giving the Heat two foul shots and the ball with the shot clock turned off. Since Miami opened the fourth quarter with the ball as well, the sequence could have put the Nets in a deeper hole.
Still, the Nets had multiple opportunities to pull ahead in the fourth quarter, but failed to convert. Williams was most culpable. He couldn’t even hit the rim on either of his two symmetrical corner three-pointers or his reverse layup attempt under the hoop during a brutal three-plus minute stretch.
And let’s not totally put the blame on Johnson for his first misfire. Williams had a wide-open mid-range jump shot that he passed up, possibly fearing the wrath of the fans had he missed again. Johnson had to put up a contested shot to avoid a shot clock violation.
But that’s par for the course for Williams. For these reasons, Kidd never really wanted D-Will to score in large numbers anyway.
Kidd instead wanted the Nets to play more in his image from his own playing days. Move the ball and whoever gets a good look takes the shot, no matter who he is or how much money he makes.
Any one of guys like Mirza Teletovic, Andray Blatche, Shaun Livingston, Marcus Thornton and Anderson might be pressed into creating offense with the shot clock winding down in big spots. Kidd trusts them all.
It works–from time-to-time. In Game 3, Blatche and Teletovic saved the Nets’ bacon.
It wasn’t too difficult for Miami to make sure it didn’t happen again on Monday. They ran Teletovic off the three-point line and enticed Blatche into taking bad shots. Anderson and Andrei Kirilenko had strong games off the bench, but it wasn’t nearly enough to make up for the 10-for-29 cumulative shooting from the field by Williams and Johnson.
It’s great to have a bench that contributes, but if those guys could do it consistently, they’d be the ones in starting lineups earning max contracts. For example, Blatche would still be with the Wizards if not for his enigmatic floor game.
The cold truth is that these guys are limited in what they can be counted on to do night-in and night-out.
And this series has proven that those limits make it awfully hard to take down a King.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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