MIAMI - This was a real chance to validate the two-month streak they've been on, the one that propelled them to the best record in the Eastern Conference since 2014 began.
All the props and collective pats on the back were cool and everything, but the Nets' date in South Beach with the two-time defending champion Heat last night was a legitimate opportunity for them to prove they weren't simply pummeling bad teams or pounding good ones missing a key player or two.
No wonder that Paul Pierce said he was "locked in" at the team's morning shootaround, choosing not to talk to the media in advance of their nationally televised matchup because he wanted to channel his energy into finding a way for the Nets to cool off the Heat for the third time in three tries. Turned out, Pierce was the one who needed to be doused off.
Pierce scored 17 of his 29 points in the third quarter, sparking the Nets to a 96-95 win over Miami at AmericanAirlines Arena. The Nets have won seven of their last eight games and are 23-9 in 2014.
Pierce almost willed the Nets (33-30) to victory by himself. He made all seven of his second-half shots, going 4-for-4 from three-point range, and had 17 points in the third quarter.
"Playing in so many of these big games, you always try to get yourself prepared mentally, physically," Pierce said. "You know what it's going to take to be in these types of territories and try to get a win. From the time I woke up and at shootaround, I was really locked in as I said this morning, understanding this was going to be one of our toughest games to date . . . You try to instill it in your teammates.
"That's what I tried to do and I think that's why they've got me here."
Even though nearly everything Pierce he threw up sailed through the net, he spent the bulk of the initial 6:20 of the fourth quarter on the bench, and Jason Kidd didn't reinsert him until there was 4:11 left with the Nets leading Miami (44-18) by two points. The reason? Mirza Teletovic, who had 17 points off the bench, was feeling it.
"Mirza was on fire and that's something about the guys on the bench," Kidd said. "They always let me know to let guys stay.
Paul said, 'Let him go, he's going.' I wanted to come back with Paul a little earlier, but Mirza was knocking down his shot and he was spreading the defense. So that was just Paul being unselfish."
The Nets still needed one critical stop at the end -- and they got it by preventing Miami from getting the ball to LeBron James, who didn't take a shot in the fourth quarter and had a relatively quiet night. He had 19 points, seven assists and five rebounds.
Shaun Livingston deflected Chris Bosh's inbounds pass intended for James, and Joe Johnson saved it before it went out of bounds, keeping it in play just long enough for the clock to expire and seal the Nets' win.
"Well, this feels good, man," Pierce said. "We were written off early. It feels good for us to be able to turn this thing around. We had these visions of playing like this before the season started, Unfortunately, it just took a little bit longer than we expected. So I'm glad we were able to turn it around at this point in the season at the right time."