After a dismal start to the season, the Brooklyn Nets have been the hottest team in the Eastern Conference since the calendar flipped to 2014, climbing up the standings thanks to a long-limbed, opportunistic defense that's been creating turnovers at an absurd rate. And with the game on the line in the closing seconds against the two-time-defending NBA champion Miami Heat at AmericanAirlines Arena on Wednesday, Jason Kidd's team once again disrupted their opponents' flow, thanks in large part to the active hands of resurgent guard Shaun Livingston.
After Nets point guard Deron Williams couldn't get his second step-back midrange jumper of the final 35 seconds to drop — a shame, because the first one was money — Miami had the ball down by one with 3.5 seconds remaining. As Heat big man Chris Bosh prepared to inbound the ball, Mario Chalmers cut across the face of the in bounder to the far wing while Ray Allen looped from the right block through the foul line to the left corner. LeBron James set a screen on Livingston, who was defending Allen, at the left elbow, and began to cut to the basket; Bosh tossed a pass to the open space James was heading into, away from Livingston and toward the basket. (If this sounds familiar to you, it's probably because, like SB Nation's Mike Prada, you remember Miami running the same thing to beat Paul George and the Indiana Pacers in Game 1 of the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals.)
There was just one problem: Livingston was ready.
The 28-year-old guard saw the screen coming and called a switch, instructing teammate Joe Johnson to stay at home and pick up Allen in the corner. And while James tried to push off and cut to the rim, Livingston anticipated the pass and used his 6-foot-11 wingspan to get his right hand in front of James, deflecting the ball away. (This is where, if you're a Miami fan, you argue that Livingston grabbed a hold of James to keep him from breaking free. I won't argue too hard about that.)
The deflected ball was heading out of bounds, which would have given Miami another crack at it, but Johnson thought quick and saved it back inbounds to Livingston, who beat Allen to come away with possession as time ran out. The official box score credited the steal to Johnson, but the Nets' internal charting will surely credit Livingston for the critical deflection that sealed a huge 96-95 road win.
Brooklyn has now won all three of its meetings with Miami this season and seven of its last eight games overall, improving the Nets' East-best-in-2014 mark to 23-9 since Jan. 1. The win, combined with the Washington Wizards' Wednesday loss to the Charlotte Bobcats, moves Brooklyn up to fifth place in the East at 33-30, just 1 1/2 games back of the fourth-seeded Chicago Bulls and three games behind the Toronto Raptors for the top spot in the Atlantic Division.
It was a nip-and-tuck battle throughout the first half, tied at 22-all after 12 minutes and 42-all at intermission. The Nets took over in the third, though, at one point building a seven-point lead thanks to a monster effort from Paul Pierce, who scored 17 of his game-high 29 points on perfect 5 for 5 shooting in the frame. Brooklyn also got big production from reserve forward Mirza Teletovic, who buoyed the bench with 17 points on 6 for 11 shooting, including 3 for 5 from 3-point land, on a night where Kidd was again without ailing big men Kevin Garnett and Andrei Kirilenko.
Down the stretch, though, it was the Nets' commitment to clamping down that won the day. Brooklyn forced 17 Heat turnovers on Wednesday, with seven coming in the fourth quarter, and the biggest one of all coming on the final possession.
"I wanted to get better with our switching," Kidd said, according to The Brooklyn Game. "We lost some games earlier in the year by [poorly] switching."
This time, though, they got it right, and the "active hands" mantra carried them to perhaps their biggest win of the season.
Livingston finished with 13 points, seven rebounds, four assists, three steals and a block in 38 minutes in the win, continuing his stellar two-way play in Brooklyn's reshuffled starting lineup. Williams' shot wasn't falling often, as he notched just six points on 2 for 8 shooting, but he dished eight assists against three turnovers in 35 minutes and made what wound up being the game-winner after shaking Heat defender Mario Chalmers to give Brooklyn a 96-92 lead.
Bosh led the heat with 24 points on 9 for 14 shooting and seven rebounds, while Dwyane Wade added 22 points on 8 for 11 shooting. James, however, was largely held in check, scoring 19 points on 6 for 13 shooting with seven assists, five rebounds, three steals and five turnovers; with Brooklyn keying on him and Bosh flowing, James wound up not attempting a field goal in the fourth quarter of what wound up being Miami's fourth loss in five games, dropping them two games behind the idle Pacers for the top spot in the East.
"It's competition," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said after the loss, according to Tim Reynolds of The Associated Press. "It's survival of the strongest right now. ... We still feel confident about our game. We just need to put it together."
If the clip above isn't rocking for you, feel free to check it out elsewhere, thanks to The Brooklyn Game.
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