Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted on Sept.
MIAMI - Beating the pesky Raptors and their perky fans was one thing. Tuesday night, it was time for the Nets to put on their big-boy pants, to borrow a playoff phrase from Rangers coach Alain Vigneault.
Instead, they were undressed.
Their 107-86 belly flop against the Heat in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals hardly means the series is a lost cause. "We're not overreacting," Paul Pierce said.
But in flying here directly from Toronto, the Nets clearly did more than change countries. Their trip roughly due south on the map coincided with a trip roughly due north in basketball class.
The two-time defending NBA champions looked well rested after eight days off, demonstrating their varied talents and moving the ball like the 1969-70 Knicks to little resistance when forced into a deliberate, half-court approach.
"Our defensive game plan wasn't executed at all," Deron Williams said, glumly, when it was over.
Nets coach Jason Kidd had seen enough by midway through the fourth quarter, leaving his starters on the bench in order to save their minutes for Game 2 and beyond.
Kidd said the plan was for his backups to cut a 13-point deficit entering the quarter to single digits and then put in the starters. "But it never happened," he said. Three starters didn't play in the fourth and another played one minute.
If Kidd doesn't come up with a drastically new plan by Thursday night, the Heat might be on the way to another long layoff before the conference finals.
The statistics sheet was littered with embarrassing nuggets. The Heat had a 52-28 advantage in points in the paint. The Nets' starters combined for a grand total of two free throws, making one.
Kevin Garnett didn't score a single point and Pierce managed only eight. Their former Celtics teammate, Ray Allen of the Heat, scored 19 off the bench.
It was evident from the start the Nets would encounter a far lesser challenge here than in Toronto in terms of crowd intimidation. But that is not as important as the challenge posed on the court by LeBron James and his friends.
James scored 22 points on 10-for-15 shooting and added five rebounds and three assists. His 36 minutes were more than anyone on the Nets played.
"We made a lot of mistakes and allowed them to just roam free," Williams said. "I got beat on a couple of back-door cuts. It was just kind of the theme of the night: layups, layups, layups."
The blowout proved definitively that the Nets' 4-0 regular-season record against the Heat is irrelevant now, and confirmed suspicions of those who figured the Heat were just biding their time until postseason play arrived.
Coach Erik Spoelstra insisted that was not the case. "I don't know if people are saying that we were waiting to turn on the switch," he said. "Our guys were not waiting. We were competing and trying to get those games . . . I don't talk about the switch. It's about habits you build for six or seven months."
The habit around here is winning, something the Nets are trying to build in their second season in Brooklyn. But as much as the dramatic series against the Raptors helped in that regard, this is the ultimate test in the East.
The Nets failed their first exam.
"They came out at home like they were supposed to, and that is our job to try to steal one," Garnett said. "In Game 2, we've got to do it with some aggression, putting them on their heels and attacking more than we did tonight."
Easy to say, difficult to do.