The Brooklyn Nets have proved that they can beat the best.
But right now, at this very moment, the Nets have their number.
Playing like the $190 million team everyone expected it to be at the beginning of the season, Brooklyn executed down the stretch and improved to 3-0 against the Miami this season, showing heart, mettle and depth in its 96-95 victory over the Heat on Wednesday night at AmericanAirlines Arena.
“Team basketball. That’s who we are,” Nets coach Jason Kidd told reporters in Miami. “It’s not just one guy. That’s how we win.”
Paul Pierce, in a another throwback performance against his nemesis, scored 17 of his 29 points in the third quarter and later delivered his second go-ahead field goal in as many games, a driving layup with 1:45 left that put the Nets ahead 94-92.
Deron Williams, who went just 2-for-8 from the field, hit a step-back fadeaway jumper with 35.8 seconds remaining to make it 96-92 Brooklyn, and Shaun Livingston (13 points, seven rebounds, four assists, three steals), in yet another magnificent all-around performance, sealed the win by deflecting Bosh’s inbounds pass intended for James right before the final buzzer sounded.
Livingston, Joe Johnson (2-for-10 shooting) and Mirza Teletovic -- yes, Teletovic, who was anointed “The LeBron Stopper” for his second-quarter D -- helped contain James, holding him to 19 points. James had scored at least 20 or more in 22 consecutive games against the Nets -- the second-longest stretch in their franchise history (Michael Jordan, 39).
Teletovic also scored in double figures for the first time since Feb. 12 (11 games), finishing with 17 points. Andray Blatche added 11, as Brooklyn’s bench outscored Miami’s, 36-13.
Since James, Wade and Bosh joined forces, forming the Big Three prior to the start of the 2010-11 campaign, only four teams had ever beaten the Heat three times in a single season.
Make it five.
“This is a huge win for us,” Williams told the YES Network. “Confidence-wise, spirit-wise, everything. We talked about this in the morning, coming down the stretch, we need all the games we can have, and this is a big one against the world champs in their building.”
Coming into this season, the Nets were 0-9 against the Big Three, losing those games by an average of 17.3 points. James owned a 17-game winning streak against the Brooklyn/New Jersey franchise, and the Nets hadn’t won in Miami since Feb. 1, 2008.
That’s all history now.
“We were all into the game mentally,” Livingston said. “It was a playoff atmosphere. Everybody had their heads in it and we were gonna fight tonight.”
Brooklyn’s dominance of Miami started in the preseason, started when Pierce delivered a playoff-style foul on James as he went to the basket.
“That’s going to be our identity,” Pierce said then. “That’s a message to the league. We want to be a hard-nosed, grind-it-out team. We want nothing to be easy.”
It took a while, it took a lot of adversity, it took a 10-21 start, but the Nets are playing that way right now, and they’ve played that way in their previous two games against the Heat, coming through in the clutch for a 101-100 win on Nov. 1 and a 104-95 double-overtime triumph on Jan. 10. Of course, those were at home.
This one was on the road.
This one felt like it meant more. This one was about not backing down.
On Wednesday night, they won all the battles, outrebounding the Heat 37-33 and getting 12 second-chance points to Miami’s one.
Pierce, much like he did in that preseason game, set the tone. He went a perfect 7-for-7 from the field in the second half. In 58 head-to-head meetings with James (including playoffs), Pierce is 30-28.
“It’s not just only LeBron,” Pierce said when asked why he was able to have a night like this. “It’s just when you play against the best, and this is the best. This is the class of the league. These are the two-time defending champs. All these games are big.”
Said Williams: “He wanted this game and he came out and played like it. That’s what he’s about.”
Added Livingston: “With KG out, he’s the heart and soul of our team. Everybody knows he shows up in big games. That’s what he does. He’s gonna be there. We kinda rode his back tonight and just followed his lead.”
Kidd’s team has followed the same mantra all season:
“Next man up.”
“One game at a time.”
The Nets know who they are now, a team that plays small and long, a team that plays tenacious defense and executes in the halfcourt.
It may have been only one game, but it was a game in front of a national audience on ESPN, a game that showed that the Nets can beat the best.
But three times.