NEW YORK -- Last July, when the Brooklyn Nets acquired veterans Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett from the Boston Celtics in a multi-player trade, team owner Mikhail Prokhorov didn’t hide his excitement.
“Today, the basketball gods smiled on the Nets,” he said in a news release.
Now, after a 102-96 loss to the Heat on Monday night at Barclays Center, the Nets are one loss away from ending their season far sooner than anyone associated with the team had hoped. The Heat are ahead 3-1 in the best-of-7 series with Game 5 on Wednesday night in Miami.
Five Nets scored in double figures, led by Joe Johnson’s 18 and Pierce’s 16. Shaun Livingston and Deron Williams had 13 apiece, while Alan Anderson added 10 off the bench.
Still, they didn’t have anyone to stop LeBron James. Pierce, outspoken throughout the series, had asked coach Jason Kidd in Game 2 to guard James. On Monday, though, James had no trouble against Pierce or any other Nets defender. He tied his playoff career-high with 49 points, including 25 in the first half and 40 at the end of the third quarter. When James played for the Cleveland Cavaliers, he had 49 points on May 20, 2009 against the Orlando Magic.
“We didn't get in front of him,” Livingston said of the Nets’ porous defense on James. “He put his head down and drove through one guy. We needed another guy there. He just put his head down.
“He's one of the strongest guys in the league once he gets going. He's a bull. Everybody knows it.”
Despite James’ performance, the Nets still had a chance to tie the series. With 2:30 remaining, Garnett grabbed an offensive rebound and drew a foul on James, his fifth of the night and third of the quarter. Garnett made both free throws to tie the game at 94-94.
Chris Bosh’s three from the corner gave the Heat a 97-94 lead with 57.3 seconds remaining. Still, the Nets had a chance after James missed a shot with 17.8 seconds left, but Dwyane Wade grabbed the offensive rebound. Ray Allen sealed the victory by making four consecutive free throws, ruining Brooklyn’s comeback attempt.
After committing his fourth foul, Pierce sat out the final 6:43 of the third quarter and went to the bench with only seven points. When he returned to start the fourth, he made an immediate impact. Trailing by six points at halftime, the Nets went ahead 80-79 on their second possession of the fourth quarter when point guard Deron Williams found Pierce open for a dunk. It was their first lead since midway through the second quarter.
With Garnett and Pierce joining a starting lineup that included Williams, Johnson and Brook Lopez, the Nets were a trendy preseason pick as one of the few teams capable of denying the Heat another NBA title. By Jan. 1, the Nets were 10-21, but they won 10 of their next 11 games and finished the regular season 44-38 despite playing without Lopez since December after he broke his right foot and underwent season-ending surgery.
In the first round of the playoffs, Brooklyn fell behind the Raptors three games to two. The Nets then won Game 6 at home and clinched the series with a 104-103 victory in Toronto when Pierce blocked Kyle Lowry’s shot from a few feet away with less than a second remaining.
The Nets now need another comeback, or else their once promising season will end in disappointment.