For 45-and-a-half minutes Monday night, the Brooklyn Nets gave the Miami Heat everything they could handle, taking their cue from Paul Pierce’s walk-the-talk performance to pull even at 94 late in Game 4.
All, that is, but one: LeBron James, whose 49-point supernova performance in Miami’s 102-96 win immediately entered the all-universe forward’s playoff pantheon.
Over the final 150 seconds, the Nets scored exactly two points, a meaningless layup by Mirza Teletovic with seven seconds left and the outcome well beyond doubt.
Each of Brooklyn’s quartet of stars had, in the game’s waning moments, a chance to set screws squarely to Miami's psyche—make LeBron consider, if for a moment, that the Heat’s survival lay in his hands alone.
Snake eyes all.
An errant corner three from Williams that careened off the backboard’s top. The awkward 17-foot fadeaway from Garnett. A step-back misfire from Johnson. Pierce’s 24-foot failed haymaker.
On the other hand, it was hard to tell whether the Heat had won because of James, or in spite of everyone else.
Save for a clutch corner three to give his team a tenuous 97-94 lead with 57 seconds left, Chris Bosh was mostly quiet, finishing with 12 points.
Meanwhile, Dwyane Wade managed to murk a 7-of-13 shooting performance with a bevy of late-game boneheaded plays—Miami’s answer to Brooklyn’s dubious disappearing acts.
Pierce, to be fair, was there in spurts, no doubt owing to his now infamous pregame remarks wherein the veteran forward admitted asking head coach Jason Kidd for green light to guard King James, opining that the Heat were “not unbeatable.”
Strangely enough, and despite James’ exploits, the strategy damn near worked, with LeBron toeing the finest of lines between challenge-heeding heroics and tunnel-vision destruction.
Ever the professional, Pierce did all his 36-year-old body would allow, hawking passing lanes and blazing his way into the paint, passionately imploring his teammates all the while.
Ill-advised goads aside, Pierce will most certainly be spared the brunt of Tuesday’s critical spotlight. No, that hot seat remains the sole province of Williams, he of the 34 percent series-shooting clip and overall hardwood anemia.
Wielding so many weapons, Williams needn’t force the savior’s issue. At the same time, working solely from the shadows robs Brooklyn of not only its only pure point guard, but—as Bleacher Report’s Adam Fromal recently noted—its best playmaker as well:
D-Will is often the engine that makes Brooklyn go. When he's on his game, the Nets have a whole new offensive dynamic, and defenses are compromised to focus on stopping his inside-outside game, one that involves him knocking down triples and devastating perimeter defenders with his brutalizing crossover.
With Garnett, the question is one of simple expectations: At 38 years old and with north of 54,000 minutes on the odometer, KG’s eight points and seven rebounds have become the found money orbiting the war chest—all $200 million of it.
Even Johnson’s steadiness—16.8 points on 50 percent shooting for the series—has, at times, felt like a phantasm. He, too, failed the final frame, registering but a pair of game-tying free throws in the final four minutes.
Of course, with Brooklyn down 3-1 and facing a Game 5 elimination in Miami, there’s a decent chance this will all soon be moot.
But the long-term implications are nothing if not pressing. Capped out and with a fast-aging core, Brooklyn’s odds of improving next year’s roster remain tightly tethered to owner Mikhail Prokhorov’s devil-may-care attitude toward the NBA’s luxury tax.
How willing the mercurial Russian billionaire will be to pay the Milwaukee Bucks and Utah Jazzes of the world for the right to be ousted in the second round of the playoffs is, to put it mildly, a concerning question.
Lest we count out Kidd and company just yet, we are still talking about the only Eastern Conference team to sweep the Heat during the regular season. Even adjusting for rest and schedule specifics, that’s no small feat.
And yet, it was impossible not to read into LeBron’s vengeful performance the possibility that Wednesday’s game will be—like any funeral—a mere formality.
Even if we get Williams at his whirling-dervish best. Even if Iso-Joe jumpstarts a run or two. Even if Pierce’s savvy somehow scales the scourge of age. Even if KG’s yawps shake the stands and shatter the rafters.
This Brooklyn team has never wanted for pride. Production, however—the kind that can somehow quell a conquering King—was simply never there in steady enough supply.