Nets no challenge for Heat in East

If there’s a case to be made that there’s a contender for the Eastern Conference crown other than the Miami Heat, no one has stepped up and made it just yet. But after another Heat demolition of the Nets, this time a 105-85 pounding Wednesday night, it’s obvious that Brooklyn no longer has any business engaging in that debate.

In their first and only visit to Barclays Center this season, the East-leading Heat totally flummoxed the Nets for most of the night and used a 36-14 third quarter to blow the game open after surrendering a 12-point first-half lead. The win capped off Miami’s fourth consecutive season sweep of the Nets, who have yet to beat the Heat during the Big Three era and have lost 13 straight in the series overall.

With nearly half of the season left to play, the Heat (29-13) only hold a four-game advantage on the Nets (27-19) in the conference standings, but the manifest disparity between the talent levels on the floor — both Wednesday and in Miami’s other two routs of Brooklyn, a 103-73 win on Nov. 7 and a 102-89 victory on Dec. 1 — was as apparent as ever. And now it’s clear: Among the teams in the upper half of the Eastern Conference, New York’s newest, most overrated attraction has no shot of dethroning the Heat in the playoffs.

“You measure yourself up against the champion,” said Nets swingman Gerald Wallace, the $40 million man who followed up a seven-point, four-rebound game against Orlando on Monday with six points and two boards against the Heat. “They’re the champions, and they’ve embarrassed us all three times.”

Unfortunately for the Nets, they didn’t show that kind of appreciation for their opponent before the game, and it only made the task of knocking off the defending champs that much more challenging when the game tipped off. It stands to reason that common sense should win out when it comes to poking the dragon that is the Heat, but Reggie Evans apparently lives by a different code, and his team paid for it as a result.

At Wednesday morning’s shootaround, Brooklyn’s bruiser of a forward — known as much for his mouth as anything he’s ever done on the basketball court — reportedly couldn’t help himself and called into question both the validity of the Heat’s 2012 championship, essentially calling it meaningless because it followed a short season, as well as LeBron James’ offensive prowess, likening him to Nets teammates Joe Johnson and Andray Blatche.

A few hours before tipoff, LeBron passively tweeted, “Just keep throwing rocks at the throne, don’t matter cause nothing can break my zone” — a partial quote of a song called “Takeover” by Nets co-owner Jay-Z — and then came out and, well, took over, making Evans look foolish in the process.

James scored 24 points to go with nine rebounds and seven assists in the game, and he’d have done more, but his night was over with just under eight minutes left in the fourth quarter. Since joining the Heat, James has averaged 25.4 points, 8.1 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game against the Nets, and said he felt motivated by Evans’ comments.

“No one knows what it takes unless you’ve done it,” James said in the locker room afterward. “You can’t sit here and judge or talk about a team winning a championship unless you’ve been through it and actually done it. He hasn’t done it.”

LeBron told reporters he and Evans didn’t speak on the court, but it didn’t mean he wasn’t paying attention to Evans’ game. As he sat at his locker in front of a media scrum five deep, with a towel around his shoulders and ice on his knees, James ribbed the rebounding specialist for his lack of impact on the glass in Brooklyn’s loss.

“Look at his numbers — hold on, let me look at Reggie Evans’ numbers real quick,” James said, before pointing out Evans’ offensive rebounding total of zero (he had six defensive rebounds). “So we did our number on him, and we got the win, more importantly.”

Unfortunately for the Nets, coming up short against playoff-bound competition has been something of a struggle this season, and it’s a huge part of why they won’t compete for anything once the playoffs get started. Since firing Avery Johnson after a 14-14 start, Brooklyn has won 13 of 18 games, but almost all of those victories have come against inferior competition.

This is a team that overpaid for a hodgepodge of subpar talent, a point hammered home once again against Miami, as Brook Lopez, the team’s only All-Star, and Blatche, who earns $850,000, were the only ones worth the money Mikhail Prokhorov paid them for their efforts in the loss. Johnson scored 16 points but needed 15 shots to do it, Deron Williams had just nine points and had more turnovers than assists, and Kris Humphries, who is making $12 million this season, played just 2:07 off the bench. Money well spent? Not so much.

As it stands right now, the Nets would play the Heat in a second-round series, and you’d have to imagine Miami — which, at 11-10 on the season, isn’t even a particularly great road team — would be eager for another visit to Brooklyn if it meant that kind of a cakewalk to the conference finals.

Once there, it’s possible that Miami could meet some resistance, as the Knicks have irrefutable star power with Carmelo Anthony and have proven formidable, and the Pacers or Bulls could make for an interesting matchup, particularly once Derrick Rose returns for Chicago.

But, as they made clear Wednesday and have made clear all season long, LeBron and Co. wouldn’t have any trouble should they meet up with Brooklyn — a team that talks the talk and shows the money while Miami just keeps on showing what championship teams are really made of.

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