MIAMI (AP) — The Miami Heat are a game away from a fourth straight trip to the Eastern Conference finals.
And it’s like they haven’t even noticed.
Almost from the moment Game 4 of this East second-round series against the Brooklyn Nets ended, the moment where the Heat took complete control of the matchup by riding the strength of LeBron James’ 49-point night in a 102-96 victory, all the attention was directed toward what the two-time defending NBA champions figure to be their biggest challenge yet.
The test: Game 5 on Wednesday, when the Nets’ season will be at stake.
“This team is not going to give us the game,” Heat guard Dwyane Wade cautioned, minutes after his team took a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series. “This series is far from over.”
That’s exactly the mindset Heat coach Erik Spoelstra wants his team to have. Recent history, though, would suggest that Miami is on the brink of advancing.
Since James, Wade and Chris Bosh became teammates, the Heat are 8-0 in home games that could end a series. Two of those wins came against Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett when they were wearing Boston green.
“It’s Game 5. We understand what’s at stake,” Nets coach Jason Kidd said. “It’s Game 7 for us from here on out. If we lose, it’s over. If we win, we fight another day. We can only focus on Game 5 and one quarter at a time.”
The task is daunting, without question. For Brooklyn to prevail, it needs to beat the Heat three times in five days, two of those games in Miami, and do so with James coming off a scoring show that matched the best of his postseason career. He made 16 of 24 shots in Game 4, carrying Miami for much of the night.
Brooklyn guard Joe Johnson said after the game that James flopped. Even that didn’t get a reaction out of the four-time NBA MVP, who seems as businesslike as ever.
“Win,” James said when asked what the Game 5 mentality will be for Miami. “It’s the mentality we go into every postseason game. Play with a sense of urgency defensively, help one another, communicate, try to get the ball moving offensively, get it moving from one side to another and attack. If we do those things, if we do it with a clear mind but at the same time an aggressive mind, we give ourselves a good chance to win.”
He was disappointed Monday night after missing a free throw that would have given him 50 points.
That’s forgotten now. To James, the only number that matters is four — the win that would send Miami back to the NBA’s Final Four.
“The wise one knows that you don’t go into it thinking ‘This is it,'” Heat guard Ray Allen said. “You have to still build on all your habits. You have to go out there and you have to get better. If this is a closeout game, then we don’t want to just settle for how we played. We want to get better and think about where we can potentially go.”
Brooklyn has won in Miami twice this season, both part of the Nets’ 4-0 regular-season sweep of the Heat.
But in this series, the MVP has been the difference.
James alone is averaging 30.3 points through four games. Johnson and Pierce, Brooklyn’s top two scorers so far in the series, are combining to average 29.5.
“To win the whole series, you need to win on the road anyway,” Brooklyn forward Andrei Kirilenko said. “It’s going to be a huge challenge for us but the series is not over yet, so we are going to fight.”
Miami would expect nothing less.
That’s why Spoelstra told — ordered would be a more accurate term — his team to take Tuesday off and rest. Coaches were at the arena in Miami studying film; no new material was made available to players, underscoring the decree from Spoelstra that players come in Wednesday ready for the toughest game yet.
“We wouldn’t expect anything else,” Spoelstra said. “It’s a veteran team. It’s not the first time they’ve been in a situation like this. Both teams know what’s at stake. It’s great competition. You have to embrace it. We’ll have to earn it.”
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