EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Striving to be second-best, the New Jersey Nets are suddenly within reach of the No. 2 seed in the East.
Streaking Nets seek Heat seat
"Right now they're playing the best basketball of anybody in the NBA, there's no doubt," Miami coach Pat Riley conceded Sunday after New Jersey notched its 12th straight victory -- one shy of the longest winning streak in the league this season -- by knocking off the Heat 90-78.
New Jersey won the season series 3-1 and moved within three games of the Heat in the loss column with 10 games remaining. It's still a long shot, but the Nets have a chance of catching Miami and securing home-court advantage for a possible meeting of the teams in the second round of the playoffs.
Most importantly, the Nets left the Heat pondering their total inability to stop Vince Carter, who went for 43 Sunday after dropping 51 on them in Miami back in December when the Nets became one of just two Eastern Conference teams to win on the Heat's home court.
Carter scored 20 of his points in the third quarter when the Nets broke the game open, then polished off the victory after Miami had rallied with a vicious two-handed slam on a backdoor cut off a line-drive alley-oop pass from Jason Kidd. We've all gotten used to seeing Carter make spectacular dunks, but this one still stood out as among his best.
"For him, everybody talked about his past, being soft, or a guy who doesn't like to compete when it gets tough, and he's shown us everything but that. He's been right there when it starts to get tough, and he wants the shot, or he wants to play defense," Kidd said of Carter, who eclipsed 20 points for the 17th consecutive game and the 54th time this season.
New Jersey is closing in on the franchise record of 14 consecutive victories set two years ago, and Kidd believes this streak is more impressive because of the quality of several of the victories (included are wins at Detroit and Washington, a 38-point blowout of Phoenix and an 11-point win over Dallas).
"As a whole, as a team, our confidence has grown. We never panic," Kidd said.
The Nets also feel they never get the respect they deserve, and they were playing that card to the hilt after Sunday's victory.
Richard Jefferson kept insisting over and over how the Pistons and the Heat were the two best teams in the East, because that's what their records show and because those two tams went to the conference finals last year, and how nobody should be claiming otherwise. Jefferson even dismissed the Nets' 3-1 season series edge as a fluke caused by several factors that conspired against the Heat in each of the losses (they were without James Posey, Alonzo Mourning and Jason Williams on Sunday, and Shaquille O'Neal was saddled with five fouls late in the third quarter after a pair of questionable calls went against him in quick succession.)
"When you have a guy like Stu Jackson running stuff, it's obvious why the referees are the way they are. It looks like there's an agenda to me," O'Neal said.
Riley also reiterated his complaint that players are using both forearms to hinder O'Neal from establishing low-post position, and he was aghast that four of O'Neal's fouls came on the offensive end.
"If you bitch too much, they lay a big fine on your ass, so we're trying to have a little class with it," Riley said.
So while the Heat grumbled, a few of the Nets, including Carter, acknowledged how important it was for them to measure themselves against a team that went 7-0 against them a year ago and swept them from the playoffs.
And then there was Jefferson, who seemingly has never heard a premise he didn't disagree with.
"You don't prove yourself until the playoffs."
OK, we'll give Jefferson that.
But to say this victory was no more important than any other would do it a disservice.
Dwyane Wade, O'Neal and Riley know full well that Miami has no one who can contain Carter (think they'll miss Eddie Jones in the playoffs?). And if the Heat stumbles through their last nine games, it's not out of the question to suggest that they might just have to stop Carter on the road in a Game 7. It's still a mathematical long shot, but at least the Nets have the Heat thinking.
"I'd like to secure what we've had all season, the No. 2 seed," Riley said. "We have to gather ourselves and get back on track."
Chris Sheridan, a national NBA reporter for the past decade, covers the league for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Chris, click here.
AP Photo/Duane Burleson
Pistons guard Chauncey Billups drove past fellow MVP candidate Steve Nash in Detroit's 109-102 win. Billups had 35 points, sinking five 3-pointers, and Nash struggled, shooting 4-of-11 for 13 points. An MVP statement? "I think I made a good case," Billups said.
Josh (Dallas): Is Dirk Nowitzki your frontrunner for MVP? if the mavs can somehow get healthy for the playoffs can they beat the Spurs?
Bill Walton: He's right up there at the top. This is one of the toughest MVP races in memory for me. He's up there with Billups and Nash. If Dallas were leading the West -- and I don't think they'll win the conference -- I think he would be the leader. Kobe has not been playing as well nor has LeBron, so Dirk is up there with Chauncey and Nash. I'll make that decision and make my vote public. But I will say that what Dirk has done has been incredible, going from being traded for Tractor Traylor. He plays like an MVP whether or not he wins it, though.
Bill Walton: The problem is the guys around LeBron. Congrats to Cleveland but the teams ahead of them are clearly better. The Cavs could be the teams below them. But winning two games in any series is like being ahead at the half. You have to win four quarters to win the series. But the other guys around LeBron are much more important to their success than LeBron. Detroit, San Antonio, Dallas, Miami, Phoenix are the best teams because the talent is more balanced. Good Luck, LeBron!
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Vince Carter dropped in 43 points while beating the Heat. The Heat's plan to stop VC could become a dominant Eastern Conference semifinal theme one month from now.
Carter In Control
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images
On a day Kobe Bryant "could have gone for 50," according to Lamar Odom, front, the Lakers swept past Yao's Rockets, 104-88. Kobe had 43, tying Elgin Baylor's team record of 23 games of 40 in a season.
Quote of the Day
-- Andrew Ayres
Donny (Ridgefield, CT): Why does the league care about players wearing tights? It seems foolish to ban an article of clothing that actually can prevent players from injuries.
Chris Sheridan: It's primarily because there are a lot of very important people in the league office on Fifth Avenue who think tights look stupid. It's really as simple as that. I think from the players' standpoint, there are a few guys who might legitimately derive some benefit from the tights, but there's probably a few other guys using it as a silent anti-authority statement (a questionable one in a fashion sense) to the league office after all the hubbub over the dress code earlier this season. There's still a sense of resentment among some players over that whole episode. Some guys just don't like David Stern telling them how to dress.
TJ (South Jordan): If the Pistons lost one player from their starting lineup just before the playoffs could they compete?
Chris Sheridan: Not if it was Chauncey Billups. The Pistons told me at the trading deadline that they were willing to move Arroyo because they didn't think they'd win the title if Billups went down and Arroyo had to fill in. It'd be tough to overcome the loss of 'Sheed, too, but McDyess could step in.
LeBron James on Saturday accomplished something for the third time within the last 12 months that Michael Jordan did only three times in his entire NBA career; that Larry Bird also did three times in his pro career. That Kareem did twice, that Magic did once, that Jerry West did once.
James had 47 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists in Cleveland's 106-99 win over Miami -- the third time in the last calendar year that James had registered a triple-double while scoring 40 or more points.
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In this day and age of tremendous athletes (whatever you think of today's players, you must admit they're far more athletic than ever), we have teams routinely scoring in the 80s and 90s.
Back in the 1960s, when there were no Julius Ervings, Michael Jordans, Vince Carters, Kobe Bryants, Allen Iversons, etc., teams put up 80 by the midway point of the third quarter. You can laugh all you want at the old pictures of those skinny, gawky, un-hip looking players, but they ran fast breaks and put the ball in the basket at a breakneck pace compared to today's mud walks.
Did you know that in the 1966-1967 season, the scoring average was 117.4 points a game? Philly, with Wilt leading the way, dropped 125 a night. Nash's Suns would've looked like Pete Carril's old Princeton squads back then.
I've written on the issue of the scoring drop several times in the past and consulted many an expert. The typical answers all made sense: better technology has led to better scouting and thus, better defense; rules changes have hindered the flow of the game; teams send only two or three players to the offensive glass while the others hustle back to stop the break; and players don't shoot as well as they used to.
Like I said, that all made sense -- until the Suns came along a few years ago.