BROOKLYN — LeBron James was on the rampage again Friday, charging at full steam into the lane, threatening to ruin a pleasant fall evening in Brooklyn, threatening the Nets’ well-being and Paul Pierce’s air space.
The scene felt oddly familiar.
Two weeks ago, Pierce turned back James with a well-placed forearm—“a message,” Pierce called it—in the midst of a meaningless preseason game. This time, Pierce chose an open palm, sending a message with 10 times the resonance.
With one mighty swat late Friday, Pierce sent James’ layup attempt flying in the opposite direction, turning back the Miami Heat’s late surge and firmly establishing that the Nets will be heard in the Eastern Conference race.
“I don’t know if we got their attention or not,” Pierce said after Brooklyn held on for a 101-100 victory. “But it was good for our psyche.”
The revamped Nets are gunning for the Heat’s throne, and they made a quick and unmistakable impression in this first regular-season meeting, which was not nearly as close as the final score indicated.
The Nets thoroughly controlled the second half, led by as many as 13 points in the fourth quarter and were never truly in danger of losing the lead. By the time the Heat got within two points, on a Mario Chalmers three-pointer, there were only 18.1 seconds left.
The Nets and Heat are both playing for next spring, not for momentary thrills in early November, but there was no mistaking the significance of the moment or the tension between the baselines.
Jason Terry, a habitual Heat irritant, nailed an early three-pointer and immediately started yapping at the Miami bench before exhorting the crowd and joining its “Brooook-lyn” chants. James threw down an alley-oop dunk and glared at Pierce. It went like that all night.
The Nets had lost 13 straight games to the Heat, a streak that began when Pierce and Kevin Garnett were still in Boston and James was in Cleveland, enmeshed in a rivalry that has now transferred to Brooklyn and Miami.
“We made it a point that they don’t like us; we don’t like them,” Terry said. He added, “But they’re champions. Nobody likes the champions.”
The Nets became a viable threat to the Heat when they acquired Pierce, Garnett and Terry over the summer. Nothing will mean anything until these teams meet in a series next May. But on Friday, the Nets flexed their muscles, showed off their strengths and demonstrated why they have to be taken seriously.
While James worked overtime to keep the Heat in the game, logging 42 minutes, the Nets kept trotting fresh talent onto the court. Joe Prunty, coaching in place of the suspended Jason Kidd, deployed a steady 10-man rotation, with nine Nets playing at least 19 minutes and no one playing more than Pierce’s 31.
The Nets bench, anchored by Terry, Andray Blatche and the surprising Alan Anderson, outscored Miami's bench 36-22 and won the rebounding battle by 17-12. Brooklyn had the clear advantage in depth, even with Andrei Kirilenko held to 12 minutes as he recovers from a sore back.
“They have great shooting, depth, size at every position, guys with experience,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said before tipoff. “They pass the ball well. So we know what they’re capable of. They're a very talented team that plays the right way.”
Both of these teams have age and injury concerns that could potentially derail them in the weeks and months ahead. But the Nets’ deep supporting cast will allow Kidd to nurse Pierce and Garnett through the long winter months.
Where the Nets have four go-to scorers in the starting lineup, the Heat offense can barely function without James on the court, orchestrating and scoring. James scored 26 points on Friday, taking 19 of the Heat’s 67 shots. No Nets player attempted more than 11 shots, while six took at least seven shots.
“That’s the beauty of it right now,” said Deron Williams, the Nets’ All-Star point guard. “Nobody has to play too many minutes, and nobody really cares. You’re not seeing anybody pouting. Everybody’s up cheering, everybody’s having fun.”
Williams, once the Nets’ undisputed franchise player, took just seven shots, scoring eight points. Brook Lopez, their All-Star center, settled for 13 points after a night of foul trouble. Pierce and Joe Johnson scored 19 points each, with Pierce coming alive in the second half to lead Brooklyn to the victory.
“Our strength is sharing the ball,” Garnett said. You can’t play defense on everybody. We have a lot of first-option guys who have led teams, who have scored a bunch of points on different teams, a lot of talent. We know that our strength is in numbers.”
Miami routinely embarrassed the Nets last season, winning three games by an average of 21 points. There was no backbone to that Nets team, no resistance and no apparent unity of purpose. Pierce and Garnett have changed the tone, changed expectations and emboldened everyone around them.
“I don’t know if we felt we were a better team than the Heat last year,” Williams told ESPN's Ohm Youngmisuk on the eve of this game. “And so I think in order for us to be able to beat them this year, we have to feel like we are a better team and we can beat them. And I think we do.”
The Nets have gained belief, gained an attitude and on Friday, gained their first victory ever over a LeBron-led Heat team. It was only one game, but the seeds have been planted for a season-long battle of wits and nerves and sneers.
“They’re tough,” Terry said. “It’s going to be hard to dethrone them.”
Still, the Nets departed their locker room late Friday exuding confidence. James left in a snit.
“I'm not commenting on any other team in the NBA," he said. "OK? They won, and they are 1-1.”