The shorthanded Brooklyn Nets outlasted the reeling Miami Heat 96-95 on Wednesday night, improving to 3-0 against the two-time defending champions this season and handing them their fourth loss in five games.
• Brooklyn is a resilient bunch. With their win over Miami, the Nets are now 7-1 since Kevin Garnett was sidelined with back spasms, the latest impressive stand from a stubborn team that simply refuses to roll over. No one would have blinked if the Nets had packed it in after Brook Lopez suffered a season-ending injury or the team started 10-21, but Brooklyn continues to plod forward despite a slew of injuries. It has taken on perhaps the most ironic underdog role of all time, considering the team's gargantuan, league-leading $180 million-plus payroll.
With Garnett unable to play, Jason Kidd is deploying a starting lineup of Mason Plumlee and four guards: Paul Pierce, Joe Johnson, Shaun Livingston and Deron Williams. The result? Utter dominance. Heading into Wednesday night's game, the five-man unit was scoring 107.4 points per 100 possessions and allowing just 85.6 this month, good for an insane 21.8 net rating. The lineup has aided the Nets in taking down the Bulls, Grizzlies and Raptors in the last 10 days and helped the team move closer to securing homecourt advantage in the first round despite all odds (Brooklyn is currently only 1.5 games behind Chicago).
On Wednesday, the team downed the Heat for the third time this season in three tries, a telltale sign that Pierce must still have some strange Celtics voodoo on LeBron James. Even more proof: Pierce's game-high 29 points, his second-most as a member of the Nets.
With an old man's game that puts defenders to shame, Pierce picked apart the Heat with a variety of ball-fakes, pump-fakes and other moves that make Hubie Brown swoon. With the game being dragged out at a playoff-like pace, Pierce found himself in his element, hitting 9-of-12 shots, including 5-of-7 from three-point range.
He also did his fair share of helping slow down LeBron, who was the weakest link of the Big Three in the Heat's loss. James finished with 19 points (6-of-13 shooting), seven assists, five rebounds and five turnovers, while Chris Bosh (24 points) and Dwyane Wade (22) did their best to make up for their leading man's off night.
We know the Western Conference playoffs are setting up to be a must-see gauntlet of contenders clashing for weeks, but the East bracket is no longer the sleep-inducing obligation we once chalked it up to be. With teams like Brooklyn, (23-9 since Jan. 1) Toronto (10 wins in their last 13 games) and Chicago (11-4 in last 15) finding second winds late in the season, Miami and Indiana could face some potentially difficult matchups in the second round.
And if the season ended today, Brooklyn and Miami would meet if they advanced out of their respective first-round series. And as Wednesday proved for the third time this season, the Heat want no part of the Nets.
• Miami blew its final chance at a final chance. Two-time defending champions usually aren't prone to poor clock management and errant inbounds passes late in games, but Miami was doomed by both against Brooklyn.
The first came in the final seconds, with the Nets leading 96-95 after Williams missed a short jumper. The ball caromed off the rim to the right and was hauled in by Wade with about 6.5 seconds remaining on the clock. But rather than immediately call timeout, Wade put the ball on the floor and began dribbling, killing precious seconds before the whistle was eventually blown with 3.5 left.
Miami was still allowed to advance the ball to halfcourt, but wasted time it could have used to draw up a more sophisticated last-second play. Instead, this happened:
Bosh's inbounds pass intended for a cutting James was perfectly read and deflected by Livingston. Johnson saved the ball from going out of bounds and Livingston recovered the ball and held it as time expired, depriving Miami of getting in a final word.
• Should we be concerned about the Heat? They're the champs and have the best player on the planet, but they've also lost four of their last five games and looked decisively flat.
"Losing four of five, that's pretty bad," said LeBron, according to the Associated Press.
The most glaring issue for Miami has been its offense, or lack thereof. The Heat lead the league by scoring 109.9 points per 100 possessions, but they've averaged just 101.3 over their last five games. The team's defense has also suffered (up to 104.2 points per 100 surrendered from 102.9), but that bump pales in comparison to the team's critical issues with the ball.
On Wednesday, Miami struggled at a little bit of everything. It shot just 1-of-10 in the first half from three-point range and 9-of-27 on the night. It had almost as many turnovers (17) as assists (18). It saw its bench (13 points) outscored singlehandedly by Mirza Teletovic (17). And it had James make just six baskets, a number not exactly befitting of an MVP candidate.
"It's competition,'' said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. ''It's survival of the strongest right now ... We still feel confident about our game. We just need to put it together.''
Part of the Heat's struggles could be attributed to midseason boredom, the inevitable regular-season lulls or a string of stingy opponents playing inspired ball, but Miami clearly has some very real issues of it own. And let's not get into "the regular season doesn't matter" debate. With homecourt advantage in the playoffs on the line, the Pacers recently suffered a season-worst four-game losing streak, yet the Heat are still two games back in the race for the No. 1 seed. With the Western Conference riding at least five-deep with contenders, the rival Pacers gearing up for a rematch with a retooled bench and a fancy new backup center, and several East teams like the Nets showing some teeth, the Heat will need their best to return to the finals for the fourth consecutive season. They can no longer get away with sloppy efforts like Wednesday's.