Kidd pumped his fist and unveiled a smile as wide as the Brooklyn Bridge.
The Nets and Heat were locked in a gripping double-OT battle and the game still very much hung in the balance when James exited with 36 seconds to go in the first overtime.
But Kidd saw everything he needed to see up to that point. The Nets were going to fight and not stop, eventually outlasting the defending champs 104-95 in the franchise’s signature moment of the season thus far.
“Gutsy,” Kevin Garnett said. “Gutsy.”
The only thing more impressive than the Nets winning five straight games and beating the likes of Oklahoma City, Golden State and Miami during the streak is how the Nets didn’t fall apart after the holidays.
Just 11 days ago, the Nets were coming off an embarrassing loss at San Antonio on New Year’s Eve. Prior to that, they were humiliated by the Bulls at home before a Christmas Day national audience.
It was after that 95-78 Christmas loss that a furious Kidd called his team out and Garnett made a stand, vented his frustration and walked out to the showers according to multiple sources. But before the veteran did, he let his coach and team know exactly where he stood and what he's made of.
Garnett was behind his coach but wanted his team to start fighting and show more heart. Then after the San Antonio loss on New Year’s Eve, Garnett made a pact with his teammates to put 2013 behind them and start 2014 with a clean slate and a new mentality.
“He’s the main one,” teammate Jason Terry said of who changed the Nets’ outlook. “He’s who spearheaded this whole movement of going out and playing with an edge, with a swagger. I think it was after the Christmas Day loss to Chicago where he kind of let it be known, ‘look, I am out here on one leg. If I can do this, we all can do it. But it is not going to be individually. It is going to be together.’”
“We just made a pact going into the New Year,” Terry added. “It was more of KG just saying it is a New Year, let’s put that last year behind us and in 2014, let’s go out and hunt. Not be the hunted.”
Basically, Garnett gave the Nets an attitude makeover and quite possibly a heart transplant. Amazingly, the Nets (15-21) have gone from road kill to suddenly the hottest team in the league.
Kidd, whom critics thought was overwhelmed in his first months as a head coach, has managed to keep the Nets from falling apart. Players have bickered with one another. Coaches have had separate agendas. Kidd demoted Lawrence Frank. Andray Blatche had to take a four-game leave due to personal reasons. And injuries have decimated the team.
Perhaps only the Governor of the state the Nets used to play in has had more drama than Kidd’s team.
“It would have been real easy,” Terry said of the Nets falling apart. “But championship teams are built on adversity and it is all about the journey. When we look back on what we went through early on in the season, we will be like, OK, that’s what molded us. That kind of shaped us into who we are.”
“At times, yeah, we got down on ourselves,” Terry added. “And we were a little chippy with each other. But for the most part, we never fractured. J-Kidd kept us together.”
The Nets may never fulfill the enormous expectations placed on them. But on Friday night, they looked like a team that is building confidence, developing chemistry and starting to believe. And they beat the Heat for a second time this season.
“Our attitudes changed,” Paul Pierce said. “Our pride has changed.”
The Nets have figured out their blueprint for winning. They are riding Joe Johnson (32 points) offensively and defending with determination and hustle.
Defensively, the Nets are coming together. They held the defending champs to a total of six points in the two overtimes, and that is with LeBron playing over four minutes of the first extra session. Sure, the Nets were facing the Heat without Dwyane Wade, Mario Chalmers and Shane Battier. But the Heat were facing the Nets without Brook Lopez and Deron Williams.
Kidd has employed a smaller lineup and it is paying dividends. Pierce is working at power forward and Garnett, who doesn’t like playing center, is orchestrating the team’s defense from the five spot.
Livingston is becoming one of the best stories of the season and looking every bit the blue chip prospect he was coming out of high school before tearing up his knee.
It would have been easy for the Nets to lose this game. They blew a 14-point lead in the final 13 minutes of regulation. But they didn’t quit. And you couldn’t say that about the Nets in several of their 21 losses in 2013.
Credit Garnett with a major assist.
“Well you have to understand, that a lot of the guys here are not made up like that,” Garnett said when asked how easy it would have been for the Nets to fall apart 11 days ago.
“I never would have made whatever years it is for me by giving up,” Garnett added. “And I won’t let anybody in here. We echoed that through the voices of the vets in here along with our coach. Our coach is not a quitter. Our owner is not a quitter. That gets trickled down from the totem pole.”
Have the Nets benefited from a few breaks during this streak? Absolutely. They beat Oklahoma City which was without Russell Westbrook. They caught Golden State at the end of a draining, seven-game road swing. And they played the injured Heat after Miami lost to the Knicks the night before.
None of that matters to the Nets. This winning streak will come to an end, perhaps tonight in Toronto. But what the Nets have discovered about themselves during this streak is much more valuable. They appear to have found themselves and perhaps are finally forming an identity, thanks to Garnett and Kidd.
“[Falling apart] is not the message we are sending here in Brooklyn,” Garnett said. “We are sending [the message of] a hard-fight team. If you know anything about Brooklyn, it’s tough. They are known for hard-working people. And that is what we are representing here.”