Nets have nothing to fear . . . except maybe LeBron James, of course

Miami Heat's LeBron James pounds his chest after Miami Heat's LeBron James pounds his chest after scoring while being fouled as Nets' Shaun Livingston and Kevin Garnett look on in the first quarter during Game 3 of their second round playoff series at Barclays Center on Saturday, May 10, 2014. Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams, Jr.

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Neil Best Newsday columnist Neil Best

Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted on Sept. ...

The word of the day in the Heat-Nets series was "fear" -- specifically whether the Nets do or do not have it when it comes to the three-time defending conference champs in general and LeBron James in particular.

Paul Pierce got the ball rolling after the Nets won Game 3 Saturday night and picked up on the theme after practice Sunday.

"A lot of series are won on fear factor -- or the non-belief," he said. "When you have that non-belief, you have no chance."

Coach Jason Kidd acknowledged there could be a "fear factor," given the caliber of competition, but added, "We have some older guys that probably, to a fault, don't understand what fear is."

All of which certainly is how any fan would hope his or her team would approach a daunting challenge such as the one the Nets face, because pro athletes do not get to be pro athletes without extreme, sometimes blind, confidence.

That's where I come in!

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OK, maybe fear is not the right word; the connotations are too negative. James himself reminded everyone Sunday that this is basketball, not war.

A better word might be "doubt." As in, having watched Mr. James play on television and in person for some time now, I doubt the Nets have a realistic chance in the Eastern Conference semifinals, because he simply will not allow it.

Yes, the Nets did a fine job slowing him down Saturday after his 16-point first quarter. But it required throwing several bodies at him, led by Pierce, and the Nets won behind an unsustainable hot streak on three-point shots.

What lingered, at least for a fearful-doubter-non-pro-player such as me, were memories of that first quarter.

Take for example, the play on which Pierce committed a flagrant foul, draping one arm over each of James' shoulders from behind. LBJ shrugged that off, along with a bump from Kevin Garnett, and made the basket.

Later in the quarter, the Nets' Alan Anderson body-checked James as he drove because, well, why not? He kept chugging forward anyway, scored another basket and made another free throw.

James is human and thus capable of off nights or at least partly off nights, but often he looks like a grown man playing against high school players.

Regardless of rooting interests, fans who enjoy basketball should be sure to appreciate what they are witnessing.

In the final playoff run before he turns 30, James is at the pinnacle of his powers, a marvel who is . . . well, he is just very, very good at basketball.

Equally impressive has been his evolution off the court. Since The Decision debacle of 2010 and its aftermath, he has matured into his role as a team and league spokesman, reliably making himself available to reporters and invariably saying and doing (and tweeting) the right things.

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The scary thing about his series against the Nets is that he has not put together a complete, dominant James-ian game, something that could happen at any moment and looked as if it were about to happen Saturday.

Avoiding that while winning three of the next four games remains a long shot, which is why it would be foolhardy to bet against James -- at least for those of us who only watch.

The opposing players, being players, have other ideas.

"It's been great," Joe Johnson said of facing the Heat. "This is what we asked for. Now that we're here, we have to make the most of it."

How? Said Kidd: "It starts with believing, and trust."

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Game 4 is Monday night. Seeing will be believing. Trust me.

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