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'Heat' is on early for Nets in historic playoff push

Playing in his first career playoff game Saturday night, All-Star center Brook Lopez hopes to slam the Nets past the visiting Chicago Bulls. AP photo

Brooklyn hopes to validate historic campaign with series win over Chicago

Brooklyn Daily Eagle

The Brooklyn Nets don't have to deal with defending NBA champion Miami unless they get past the Chicago Bulls in their best-of-seven opening round NBA playoff series, which kicks off Saturday night (8 p.m., ESPN) on the corners of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues.

But that doesn't mean our borough's first major pro sports franchise since the Dodgers abandoned us in 1957 won't be feeling the "Heat" this weekend.

Despite a history-making campaign that saw them reach the postseason for the first time since 2007, open the sparkling new Barclays Center with a 49-win effort and break the franchise record for road victories, these new-look Nets can ill-afford to flame out in the opening round against the banged-up Bulls, who will still likely be without reigning NBA MVP Derrick Rose.

"It's hard for me to put into words," Nets All-Star center Brook Lopez gushed after Brooklyn closed out the 82-game precursor to the playoffs with a 103-99 triumph over Detroit in front of 16,868 fans at the Barclays Center on Wednesday night.

"It's been so great this season, exceeding all of my expectations. I'm really excited for the first playoff game this weekend. Our emotions are really high, and I'm glad we were able to close out the regular season the right way. ... It's really been an amazing journey."

It's hard to argue with Lopez, who along with $98 million point guard Deron Williams, super-clutch shooting guard Joe Johnson and rebounding machine Reggie Evans, made this a season for the ages in Downtown Brooklyn.

Whether it's general manager Billy King's $300 million-plus summer spending spree, interim coach P.J. Carlesimo's dubious postseason history or billionaire owner Mikhail Prokhorov's mandate of an Eastern Conference Finals appearance, the Nets are on the hook to get past the Bulls, even if no one can justifiably expect them to get much further.

Unless, of course, the eighth-seeded Milwaukee Bucks somehow stun LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and the rest of the world champs in the opening round.

The Nets weren't sure whom they would take on in round one until Wednesday's game was complete, as Chicago needed Wednesday's 95-92 home win over Washington to secure the Eastern Conference's No. 5 seed and a Saturday night visit to Brooklyn.

Brooklyn lost three of its four meetings with Chicago this season, though all but one of the matchups was determined by more than four points.

With All-Star center Joakim Noah (foot), a graduate of Bay Ridge's Poly Prep Country Day School, and Taj Gibson (knee) entering the series with injuries, and Rose still inactive since blowing out his knee in the opening round of last year's playoffs, the Nets have to be viewed as a slight favorite to get to round two. 

To Carlesimo's credit, the Nets didn't take their foot of the proverbial pedal with the playoffs in sight earlier this month. They finished the campaign with a 7-2 run after going a more-than-respectable 5-3 on their epic eight-game, 17-day road trip to close March.

With a strong starting five, presuming small forward Gerald Wallace carries Wednesday night's solid performance into the playoffs, arguably the strongest bench in the league and what promises to be a raucous sellout crowd on Saturday night, the Nets are raring and ready to go when the opening tip is tossed Saturday night.

"I don't put a lot of stock in (us winning the regular-season series)," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau admitted. "They're tough. They have size. They have quality depth on that team, so we're going to have to play a complete game. Knowing your opponent well, being ready for that first game, I think that's huge."

"They're a physical team, an aggressive team," Lopez said of the Bulls. "We have to try to outrebound them and match their intensity."

Carlesimo, who took the reins from fired coach Avery Johnson in late December, hasn't led a team into the playoffs as a head coach since the last of his three straight first-round exits with Portland in 1997. The Nets' regular-season savior of sorts could find himself in Prokhorov's crosshairs in a couple of weeks if Brooklyn is unable to at least get itself into a marquee second-round matchup with the Heat.

But he won't let his own coaching future get in the way of the task at hand.

"It's been the same since day one," Carlesimo said in a radio interview regarding his interim status earlier this week. "You can't try and win any more than we're trying to win. It's business as usual."

For Williams, who spent last July 4 celebrating his return to Brooklyn after re-signing with the Nets, this series will go a long way toward cementing, or calling into question, his role as the undiputed leader of this franchise for the foreseeable future.

To Lopez, who won just 58 total games during his first three seasons with the Nets, Saturday night's Game One must look like an oasis at the end of a long, dry walk through the desert. 

''To be finally here now and be on the verge of the playoffs, it's pretty incredible.'' the 7-foot Stanford center conceded.

Not as incredible as getting past the Bulls and putting a proper exclamation point on a season Brooklynites have waited 55 years for.

* * *

Hoop du Jour: ESPN's TV cameras may have trouble scanning the sellout crowd at Barclays Center on Saturday night as the Nets are imploring Brooklynites to show up in dark garb as part of the "Blackout in Brooklyn" promotion. This will be the first major pro sports postseason game in our fair borough since the Yankees shut out the Dodgers, 9-0, at Ebbets Field in Game 7 of the World Series on Oct. 10, 1956. Jackie Robinson struck out against Johnny Kucks for the final out of that game. It also turned out to be the final at-bat of Robinson's career as he was traded to the New York Giants following the campaign and chose retirement over suiting up for the Dodgers' hated rival. ... F Evans finished sixth overall in rebounding with 11.1 per game, but led the NBA with 21.7 caroms per 48 minutes, three better than Houston's 7-foot Turkish center Omer Asik. ... C Lopez ranked 10th in the league in scoring with 19.4 points per game, while G Williams was 13th at 18.9 ppg. Only the Nets, Miami, Oklahoma City and Portland had as many as two players in the league's top 13 in scoring. ... The Nets' last playoff appearance following the 2006-07 season ended with a second-round loss to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. ... The Nets and Bulls have met just once previously in the postseason, with Michael Jordan's dynastic Chicago team rolling to a 3-0 opening-round triumph en route to completing its second three-peat of the decade. The Nets were coached by currenty Kentucky head man John Calipari in that series. ... Carlesimo has a 3-9 career coaching record in the playoffs, but he was a vital part of Gregg Popovich's staff on three NBA title-winning teams with the Spurs from 2002-07.

April 18, 2013 - 3:45pm


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