NEW YORK -- LeBron James was in the midst of one of his all-time great playoff performances, throwing down rim-shaking dunks, drawing fouls at will and burying bombs from seemingly as far as the Brooklyn Bridge.
Paul Pierce kept poking "King James" from the moment Game 3 was over, and James responded by putting on a Game 4 show for Denzel Washington, Jay Z, Beyonce and Spike Lee, and matching his career playoff high of 49 points.
Yet that was exactly what the Nets wanted. James was taking all the shots, while his teammates became bystanders. The Nets stood toe to toe with James, taking every haymaker the best player on the planet could throw and answering with their own uppercuts.
Tied at 94 with less than two minutes remaining, the Nets not only could have evened this best-of-seven series against the two-time champs but had a rare playoff opportunity to foul out James, who had five personals. The ball was in Joe Johnson's hands, with just James between him and the basket, and twice in the final 1:16 Johnson failed not only to score against James but couldn't draw a sixth foul on the face of the league, no matter how hard he tried.
Now the Nets’ season is pretty much over. Miami escaped Brooklyn with a thrilling 102-96 win to take a commanding 3-1 lead after a battle that played out like a trip to the Finals was on the line. And the Nets are left to swallow the hard truth: Their $200 million roster could not do what it was built to do –- knock James out.
“I wasn’t necessarily trying to draw a foul on him, but I thought he was aggressive,” Johnson said of the Nets' two biggest possessions of the season. “So I was trying to use his aggressiveness against him, but he flopped."
And as it turns out, Mikhail Prokhorov’s gazillion-dollar championship experiment is on the verge of becoming a second-round flop.
When the Nets hired Jason Kidd and traded for Pierce and Kevin Garnett, their goal was clear: Get past LeBron and win it all. For 46-plus minutes, the Nets looked like they were almost halfway toward that goal. They were on the verge of putting all the pressure on the champs to come through, in what would have been an incredibly intriguing Game 5 in South Beach.
A highly motivated James, who probably memorized Pierce's declaration of not fearing the champs, used everything in his arsenal, and the Nets threw it right back at him and Miami. The Nets came at the Heat with all their different parts, from Pierce's timely baskets and defensive plays to Garnett throwing his 37-year-old body everywhere as if this was his last stand.
In their biggest game of the season, the Nets played their most resilient and inspired basketball against Miami. And even though the Nets missed shots late, they were right in it and had their chances.
The Nets’ Game 4 loss came down to three possessions. First, Johnson tried drawing a sixth foul on James but missed a 14-foot turnaround jumper with 1:16 left. The Nets scorer looked more preoccupied with trying to pick up James’ sixth than lining up the shot he wanted to give the Nets the lead. After that, James drew a crowd around him and hit Mario Chalmers, who found Chris Bosh open for a 3-point dagger to push Miami up 97-94 with 57.3 seconds left.
The Nets still had plenty of time, though. They went back to Johnson, this time on the left side of the basket, isolated on James again. Johnson drove, James went sliding on his back and Johnson missed an 11-foot runner with 40.9 seconds to go.
Johnson thought James flopped. But the Nets simply were unable to draw a sixth foul on James the way they did in a double-OT, regular-season win over the Heat.
“I believe in a one-on-one situation that I can stop anyone from scoring,” James said. “I wanted to put pressure on him and make it tough for him, and he missed one.
“He missed two of them,” James corrected himself.
“I should have known they wouldn’t call a foul,” Johnson lamented.
All of those Prokhorov millions, and the Nets couldn’t buy one big bucket or even draw a sixth foul on James. They also missed seven of their last eight shots.
But more damaging was the fact that the Nets’ two max players couldn’t match LeBron in the fourth. Deron Williams had a well-rounded game with 13 points, seven assists and six rebounds, but the Nets need more from their max point guard. Williams missed four of five shots in the fourth and didn't take a shot in the final two minutes. Meanwhile, the Nets' other max contract guy, Johnson, missed all four of his fourth-quarter shots.
“The series is far from over,” Pierce said afterward.
But unless the Heat have an epic collapse in them, the Nets won’t become only the ninth team in NBA history to overcome a 3-1 deficit in a best-of-seven series.
Brooklyn spent $200 million to win a championship. And when all is said and done, the Nets likely will look back and see they couldn’t get close to sniffing a title because they couldn’t draw one more whistle or make a clutch basket on LeBron James when it mattered most.