NEWARK, N.J. -- LeBron James outscored the Nets 22-18 in the first quarter.
But it was what the Heat’s superstar small forward did on the other end of the floor in the third quarter that got everyone’s attention -- and changed the momentum of the game.
The Nets had sliced a 24-point deficit to just 10, and rookie MarShon Brooks was about to make it eight with a finger-roll in transition. That is, until James raced down the court, elevated and pinned the ball against the backboard. Shane Battier drained a 3-pointer on the other end with 3:47 remaining, and just like that the Dwayne Wade-less Heat were well on their way to an easy 101-90 victory on Saturday night in front of a sellout crowd at Prudential Center.
“It was just timing,” said James, who finished with a game-high 32 points, nine assists, seven rebounds, two steals and that crucial block in 38 dominant minutes despite playing on a bum left ankle. “I never give up on plays like that. That’s what it’s all about. That’s what we preach.”
The Nets (2-6), who had just snapped a six-game losing streak with a gutsy road victory in Toronto, had thoughts of putting together their first winning streak of the season. But those thoughts ended about a half hour before tip-off, when James felt well enough to return to the lineup after sitting out the Heat’s triple-overtime triumph in Atlanta on Thursday, and the team officially announced him as a starter via Twitter.
“Once I said I was going to give it a go, it’s back to business,” James said.
The 27-year-old made all seven of his field goal attempts and eight of his nine free-throw attempts in the opening stanza -- not even 2011 NBA Finals nemesis DeShawn Stevenson could stop him -- and scored 17 of his team’s final 19 points in the period as Miami took a 31-18 lead into the second quarter. Early on, James wowed the crowd by skying for a one-handed alley-oop, then closed out the quarter with an emphatic slam in transition and a pull-up 19-footer from the top of the key out of an isolation set as the buzzer sounded.
“He’s pretty special,” Battier said. “You run out of adjectives for him.”
James looked to be on his way to a 50-or-60-point night the way he was playing. But the Nets started double-teaming him in the post, so James went from scorer to facilitator, finding his teammates for easy buckets with precise passes.
“I just play the game the right way,” James said. “If I see a double-team, I give my guys looks. Early on, they played me one-on-one and I had it going. But then they started doubling me in the post, and the guys started getting open.”
That, more than anything, is what separates James from every other player in the game.
It’s why the Nets were the first to meet with him inside the offices of his marketing company in downtown Cleveland on July, 1, 2010 -- the first day of free agency. Billionaire owner Mikhail Prokhorov, Jay-Z and coach Avery Johnson made a strong sales pitch, but they didn’t have Wade and were still playing in New Jersey, so it wasn’t meant to be. Instead, James made his highly-scrutinized “decision” to go and thrive as part of Miami’s Big Three.
Right now, the Heat are everything the Nets want to be: a cohesive basketball team full of superstars which plays just as well defensively as it does offensively.
The Nets have a superstar point guard in Deron Williams, but they lack a true game-changer like James. That’s why they’re going “all-in” in an attempt to land Magic center Dwight Howard.
Players like James and Howard make it look easy out there, and allow their teammates to do the same.
“It’s not easy,” said James, who had his feet dunked in a Gatorade bucket full of ice inside the locker room. “Maybe to you guys it looked that way.”
It sure did.
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