It was a game of competing emotions Wednesday night at Barclays Center with a huge contingent of Heat fans cheering future Hall of Famer Dwyane Wade raucously in the final game of his 16-year career. But the Nets took care of business, grinding out a 113-94 victory to secure the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs and finish with a winning 42-40 record just two seasons after recording the worst record in the NBA.
With 10 seconds left in the game, the Heat pulled Wade to a standing ovation as both teams applauded. But make no mistake, Nets fans also were applauding a surprising team that is headed for a first-round playoff showdown with the 76ers.
D’Angelo Russell topped the Nets with 21 points, including four straight three-pointers early in the third quarter when they were on their way to building a 29-point lead. After the game, he donned a No. 3 Wade jersey that the Heat star gave to him after their previous meeting.
Asked how the Nets managed the emotions of the moment and still came away with the win, Russell said, “You’ve got to stay locked in. But all the love and support that that guy is getting on his way out is well-deserved. We had to figure out a way to stay locked in but participate in the festivities as well. That dude is a legend. To see him like that on his way out is special, for me especially because I got to be a part of [Kobe Bryant’s Lakers farewell].”
The Nets still had a 21-point lead going to the final period, but despite the fact they already were resting starters DeMarre Carroll (sore right wrist) and Joe Harris (sore right foot), they essentially called off the dogs. Coach Kenny Atkinson rested his regulars for the entire fourth quarter and went with a lineup that relied on vets Shabazz Napier (20 points) and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (10 points, 12 rebounds) while sprinkling in rookies Theo Pinson, Dzanan Musa and two-way player Alan Williams. The next thing they knew, the Heat had cut their deficit to 94-84 with just over eight minutes left to play.
The stage was set for Wade, who concluded his 16-year career with only his fifth-ever triple double (25 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists) to lead a Heat comeback in front of a crowd that cheered his every move. To the credit of the Nets’ reserves, they didn’t allow that to happen.
“That was the plan,” Atkinson said. “The best is when you do that and you still get the win. You still get your bench minutes. Shabazz was really good for a guy that hasn’t played in a while. He was excellent. I thought our bench helped us get the win.”
A loss would have dropped the Nets to the seventh seed and a matchup against the Raptors, but now they have a short trip down I-95 to face a 76ers team they split with 2-2 during the season
“We played them tough,” Russell said. “We gave ourselves a chance at the end of the game every time against them and beat them as well. We’ll go in as prepared as we can and let the results end up where they are.”
Caris LeVert who was a rookie in Atkinson’s first season, claimed not to be shocked at the speed of the Nets’ turnaround. “It was just a matter of time before we started winning games,” LeVert said. “Going back to my rookie year, we were in a lot of games late and lost them. Last year as well. We were knocking at the door, and it feels good to finally get some of those wins and be where we’re at right now.”