MIAMI -- A season that began with so much promise, with Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett talking championship in July, ended in mid-May, with LeBron James standing on a table at half court, furiously pounding his chest in celebration.
The Brooklyn Nets blew a nine-point lead in the final 5 minutes, 34 seconds, as LeBron smothered their title hopes with championship-caliber defense to snatch the game, 96-94, and the series.
The Nets were officially done in by a 16-5 Heat run to finish the game. But the real reason the Nets lost this series was they simply didn’t have a clutch player who could make winning plays or a big-time basket, or even draw a foul against LeBron and the Miami Heat in the final two minutes.
Sure, this series might’ve been different if the Nets had a healthy Brook Lopez. But that thinking went out the door back in December, when Lopez was ruled out for the season.
The Nets still should’ve had enough to beat the Heat, who gave Brooklyn ample opportunities to take this series. The Heat never really played their best in five games, and they didn’t need to.
If Joe Johnson, or anybody else, for that matter, could’ve hit two or three big shots at the end of Games 4 and 5, the Nets might be going back to Brooklyn with the series lead instead of returning home to pack for the summer.
Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov spent nearly $200 million to win a title. In the end, all that money bought him was a roster full of former All-Stars who no longer could hit clutch shots or even earn the respect of the officials and get a pivotal whistle late in the game.
Johnson, who carried the Nets in the postseason, scored 34 points, with 24 coming in a scintillating second half that saw him repeatedly torch James with an array of rainbow shots. But after Johnson buried a 20-foot step-back jumper over James to give the Nets a 91-83 lead with 4:49 left, James showed the Nets what they were missing.
James buried a 3-pointer and played air-tight defense on Johnson. He denied Johnson the ball, and when Joe would finally catch it, he had to force a difficult shot. When the Nets tried calling Pierce’s number late, the former Celtic couldn’t deliver against his former teammate Ray Allen, who drilled the 3-pointer that put the Heat ahead for good with 32 seconds to go.
Twice, the Nets went to Pierce against Allen, liking that matchup, only to see Pierce miss a 15-footer and 16-footer.
Brooklyn, though, learned the hard way that there would be no call. The champs had earned that kind of respect from the refs. The Nets? Their All-Star résumés didn’t matter anymore against James, as evidenced by their inability to draw a sixth foul against him late in Game 4 or draw calls at the end of Game 5.
When the Nets were within one point late, James clearly fouled Pierce on the sideline, forcing the ball out of bounds. But after review, the officials just gave the ball to the Nets instead of calling a foul with five seconds remaining. Fouls cannot be assessed on video review.
The Nets inbounded the ball to Johnson, but Allen poked the ball out. Johnson collected the ball, only to have James knock it out again as time expired.
“Yeah, I felt like I was fouled,” Johnson said.
The Nets’ season ended with Johnson unable to get a final shot off. It might not have mattered anyway because the Nets had missed nine of their last 10 shots.
So, what now for the Nets?
The Nets played unbelievable basketball at times after their tumultuous 10-21 start. Jason Kidd proved he can coach. Johnson showed he has plenty left in his tank.
Pierce is an unrestricted free agent. The Nets own his Bird rights and can pay him more than they can pay anybody else. But does Pierce want to return? He said he has one or two years left in him, and the former Celtic wants to win another title. That likely would mean going to another team.
Garnett has one year left on his contract, but he has contemplated retirement before and could again. Garnett certainly wants to play for a title if he comes back as well.
But the uncertainty surrounding the Nets’ future is more than just Pierce and Garnett. What about the two pillars the franchise is supposed to be built on, in Deron Williams and Lopez?
Williams, marred by injuries, was a disappointment this season. He was supposed to return to elite point guard status under Kidd’s direction. Instead, Williams looked like a maximum contract player without maximum confidence, disappearing at times during the playoffs.
Williams is supposed to be the present and future of this franchise. Instead, Williams looks like just as much of a question mark as Pierce and Garnett.
If Pierce and Garnett opt not to return, the Nets have to seriously consider hitting the reset button and trying to get out of cap hell.
Their biggest trading chip is Williams, who is still just 29 and has plenty of time to revive his All-Star game. Maybe all Williams needs is to get healthy again. But the Nets could decide that maybe they are better off starting over and trying to make a run at Kevin Durant in a few seasons.
And there’s Lopez, the oft-injured 26-year-old center who has to prove he can stay healthy after yet another foot surgery. Another major question mark.
Brooklyn could try to persuade Garnett and Pierce to return for one more run, selling them on how good the team looked after Jan. 1 and how a full season together, with a healthy Lopez and a more experienced Kidd at coach, could allow them to make one more title run.
But an already old Nets roster would be a year older with even more wear and tear. They need to get younger, more athletic and bigger, all despite having serious cap limitations.
But most of all, these Nets needed a clutch go-to guy who can make the winning shot and get calls in the final two minutes. As it turns out, Miami painfully showed that Brooklyn doesn’t have that player on its $200 million roster.
And until the Nets somehow find that player, their championship dreams will end the same way it did here in Miami in mid-May, with LeBron pounding his chest showing why he’s the man to beat.