NEW YORK — LeBron James fouled out of a game for just the sixth time in his career on Friday, and with the Heat entering the game in Brooklyn already down three of their starters, losing him for the second overtime session proved to be too much.
Behind big games from Joe Johnson and Shaun Livingston, along with some gritty and physical team defense, the Nets remained undefeated in 2014 by notching their fifth straight victory, a thrilling double-overtime triumph against a depleted Miami team and an admittedly frustrated James.
LeBron seemed irritable from the jump in this one, partly because he would have to do so much to carry his team on the second night of a back-to-back without Dwyane Wade, and partly because of the way the Nets defended him. Brooklyn was allowed to play physically against James, and as often happens to the more aggressive team, the Nets got the benefit of the doubt on many calls that could have gone either way.
“I thought I was a little frustrated in the first half, and I apologized to my teammates at halftime, telling them that my frustration and my body language was all wrong,” James said afterward. “I changed that in the second half, tried to be aggressive and put us in a position to win, but just came up short.”
It was a lackluster effort from the Heat through three quarters, who simply didn’t have the energy level to match what the Nets brought, and have been bringing during this recent stretch of winning basketball. But a play that occurred early in the fourth quarter helped to change that.
The Heat entered the fourth trailing by 12, but had already been chipping away at that deficit in the period’s first three minutes, and cut it to five by the time Mirza Teletovic grabbed LeBron around the neck to stop him on a fast break, right after James used a forearm to remove Andrei Kirilenko from his path to the basket.
LeBron was whistled for the offensive foul, and Teletovic received a flagrant one for his actions.
“He went around the neck, that was my take,” James said. “It’s not a basketball play.”
LeBron also accused Kirilenko of exaggerating contact that occurred on more than one occasion.
“I thought Kirilenko flopped a few times,” he said. “To be honest about it, he flopped a few times and he got the call. The last one that fouled me out, that could’ve been a charge for sure. But he kind of put his hands on me as I drove, and that got him off balance, and he was able to get the call. But Kirilenko definitely flopped on me a couple of times and got the call.”
Livingston was the one who took that last charge on James, but the point remains. And with James forced to watch the entire second overtime from the bench, his team was outscored for all but 16 seconds of the final five minutes, before a meaningless layup from Ray Allen was made to end the scoring for the night.
The Nets are coming together as a team, and the effort and energy they’ve been bringing on the defensive end has been the difference. Paul Pierce said as much afterward, pointing to the way his team defended James on the night as the primary example.
“We did a great job on him,” Pierce said. “The good thing I thought we did today, we attacked him too. You never see LeBron foul out. I can’t even remember. The last time I’ve seen him foul out was in a Boston playoff game actually, and that was like three or four years ago. When you get a player that caliber out of the game who hardly ever fouls out, it’s a tribute to what we’re doing on that end too. We’re attacking him as well as playing good defense on him.”
Pierce wasn’t entirely correct, as James fouled out of a playoff game as recently as last season against the Pacers in the Conference Finals. But his remark shows just how rare the occurrence is.
For Miami, these are the dog days of the regular season, even though we’re not even at the halfway point just yet. The injuries and the schedule caught up with them these past two nights, which ended a rough span of six games in nine days that left the Heat with a record of just 3-3 during that stretch.
The Heat have four days off until their next contest, and the break couldn’t come at a better time as far as James is concerned.
“We’re banged up right now as a team,” he said. “We’re not an excuse team, but right now, we have three starters that didn’t play. Even though we’ve got a lot of depth, it’s hard to make up for three starters being out. So we could all use this break for sure.”