BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- You can often sense the outcome of a Nets game by the timbre in Paul Pierce’s voice, by how quickly Deron Williams saunters to his locker, by when Kevin Garnett plans his at-his-leisure speeches with the media. You know it ended well if Garnett speaks with conviction, if Pierce bops his head back and forth with a smile, or if Williams cracks a joke with reporters before the recorders click on.
It was all too easy to tell that didn't happen Monday night: Williams, Pierce, and Garnett spoke to reporters a little more than 45 minutes after the team’s 102-96 loss to the Miami Heat, putting them in the historically unenviable position down 3-1 in a best-of-seven series heading back on the road. Williams’s silence as he limped towards his locker spoke volumes, and Pierce and Garnett split the media by speaking simultaneously.
They spoke of not winning a series, but winning one game at a time, because that's all the season they can guarantee. The odds are stacked against them: only two road teams have won a best-of-seven series in the same position in 145 tries in NBA history.
"One thing we did talk about was taking it one game, one possession at a time," Joe Johnson added at the podium, the lone Nets player to speak there. "Obviously the series is not over, but we really have to have urgency going to Miami and we got to come out ready to roll."
After Pierce famously asked for the assignment to guard James, the Nets gave up a stunning 49 points to the four-time MVP in Game 4, on 16-24 shooting and 14-19 from the free throw line. James scored in eerily consistent fashion: 12 points in the fourth quarter, 13 in the second, 15 in the third, and nine in the fourth. He outscored the rest of his starters plus top bench scorer Ray Allen combined.
"He's tough," Pierce assured. "Especially with his strength, his speed, when he ducks his head to try to go to the basket, it really took away a lot of my aggressiveness in the first quarter when I picked up two fouls. So I was trying not to pick up my third foul there in the second quarter, and he realized that, and he just kept going to the hole. At the end of the day, he's tough to guard one-on-one. You got to try to slow him down, you've got to try to send multiple guys at him, make him kick the ball, and we didn't do that tonight."
James's buckets came inside and out, as he hit three three-pointers and a ridiculous 11 of 12 shots in the restricted area. To compare, the Heat only had 13 attempts in the restricted area as a team in Game 3.
The 49 points ties James's career playoff high, which he set on March 20, 2009, as a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers, in a 107-106 loss to the Orlando Magic. James had a chance to hit 50, but missed one of two free throws with 1.1 seconds left.
"That's the first time I've been disappointed in myself in a win," James cracked after the game.
The Heat nearly wasted James’s phenomenal night, if not for a beautifully designed play near the end.
With the game knotted at 94 apiece and 75 seconds left, the Heat whirled Mario Chalmers, Ray Allen, James, and Chris Bosh in pinwheel fashion, with James ending the carousel in the middle by screening for the ballhandler Dwyane Wade. James rolled to the basket, getting into the paint once more, drawing Kevin Garnett’s attention and setting up a two-on-one in the right side, with Williams tending to both Bosh and Chalmers. James kicked the ball to Chalmers, who flicked it to Bosh in the corner, and Bosh buried the corner three-pointer to put the Heat up for good.
James said he saw it coming the entire way. "They kind of messed up the coverage,” he added. “D-Wade was able to hit me down the middle, and I went to attack (Garnett), who came off of (Bosh), and I already knew exactly what was about to happen. I saw KG rotate to me, so I spun in the paint and I threw it to (Chalmers), and i already knew he was going to find CB. As soon as I got it to Rio, I knew it was going to be good from CB. He’s big time."
Williams had a little more difficulty remembering the play, switching James and Wade's role, but otherwise knew what happened.
"I don't even- I gotta look at it," Williams said. "I think they ran a screen-and-roll up top, somebody slipped out, I think D-Wade slipped out, they hit him in the middle, kinda was a trap in the middle, swung it over to Chalmers, I took him, and Bosh was in the corner. Just made a great play. A great shot."
“This was very difficult to swallow, it’s hard to take, but that’s what it is,” a dejected Garnett said about an hour after game time. “One guy can obviously score a lot of points and hurt you … Shoulda’coulda’woulda’s won’t help us at this point.”
The Nets went to their crunch-time go-to player in Johnson down the stretch, isolating him for two possessions on LeBron James, who had five fouls. But Johnson missed a fadeaway jumper on the right side in his first attempt, and a tough runner on the left side as James fell to the floor on his second.
"(Johnson is) a very talented player and we want him to touch the ball," Kidd said of the team's crunch-time offense. "We're not trying to foul LeBron out, we're just trying to play the game, see what presents itself. When you try to foul someone out, that doesn't tend to work. So we got the ball to our best player and he got some good looks but they just didn't go down."
Johnson was more matter-of-fact. "He flopped that last one."
The Nets will charter to Miami for Wednesday’s now-imperative Game 5. They’ve already won two games on the brink of elimination in these playoffs against the Toronto Raptors, and they understand the stakes. But these Miami Heat aren’t those Raptors.
That didn’t stop members of the Nets organization from having faith, like assistant general manager Bobby Marks, who tweeted this after the game:
May 16, 2007
— Bobby Marks (@jakecooper) May 13, 2014
@uuords game 5 eastern conf semi after being down 3-1
— Bobby Marks (@jakecooper) May 13, 2014
That was an 83-72 victory against the Cleveland Cavaliers, led by LeBron James, by a Nets team led by Jason Kidd. So anything is possible...
Except the Nets also lost that series in six games.
Game 5 tipoff is Wednesday at 7 P.M.