Riding an 11-game losing streak, the Nets were living in a universe that was the polar opposite of the one inhabited by the Heat, which began the season 11-30 but was on a 12-game winning streak when it arrived Friday night at Barclays Center. Seeking enlightenment as to what the Nets might learn from the Heat’s journey, a reporter asked Miami coach Erik Spoelstra how his team righted itself.
The question elicited something approaching a sneer from the Miami coach, who said: “Everybody wants to focus on the streak. We’ve been talking about gradual incremental improvement every single day. Doing it in a profession and a society that wants microwave results is the biggest challenge.”
The Nets and coach Kenny Atkinson have a deep understanding of that challenge. Their arduous process has produced noticeable improvement, and for the sixth straight game, they played strong defense and fought to the wire. But they blew an 11-point third-quarter lead and committed critical fourth-quarter turn overs that ignited the Heat’s closing 25-16 run for a 108-99 victory.
Trailing by two entering the final period, the Nets tied the score at 83 with 7:38 to play on a jumper in the lane by Brook Lopez. But after a free throw by Lopez on the next possession made it a one-point deficit, the Nets committed three straight turnovers that led to six Heat points for a 91-84 lead. It effectively was game over right then.
Atkinson credited the Heat for going to a small lineup that utilized forward James Johnson to cover Lopez. Johnson, who had 26 points off the bench, came up big for the third straight time against the Nets.
“It gave us a lot of problems,” Atkinson said of the small lineup. “Offensively, they turned us over, and defensively, they had five guys out there driving and getting to the paint. Just too much penetration. It was a good move by them. I thought it changed the game.”
Lopez led the Nets (9-45), who have lost 23 of 24 games, with 30 points and eight rebounds. Randy Foye had 15 points and Bojan Bogdanovic added 10. But the Nets committed 22 turnovers leading to 29 Miami points.
Playing without injured Dion Waiters, the Heat (24-30) got 21 points from Goran Dragic and 18 off the bench from Tyler Johnson, who worked effectively with James Johnson.
This was the third meeting in 17 days between the Nets and Heat. Miami overcame an 18-point fourth-quarter deficit at Barclays on Jan. 25 and an 11-point second-quarter deficit Jan. 30 at American Airlines Arena.
When Foye led a 14-7 run to begin the second half, the Nets took an 11-point lead at 67-56. Sure enough, the Heat responded with an 18-5 run to regain a 74-72 third-quarter lead.
Atkinson went with the veteran Foye at point guard in the fourth quarter for stability when Miami’s defense was disrupting every play. But Foye committed the first of three straight Nets turnovers that let the Heat take control.
“When they play James Johnson at the five, he’s so versatile,” Foye said. “He fronted Brook, and it was hard to get him the ball. That’s why [I made] that play where I turned it over trying to force it. I looked dead at [James Johnson], and he popped the ball up. He’s been the difference-maker in these three games with his play on both ends of the floor.”
Spoelstra expressed admiration for how the Nets’ pace put the Heat on its heels and forced his team to battle. “The second half became about raw competition, inspiring play after inspiring play,” Spoelstra said. “Sometimes you have to dig real ly deep, and Brooklyn forced us to do that.”