MIAMI — LeBron James leaped onto a courtside table as the postgame celebration was starting, thumped his chest and punched the air.
Next stop: The Eastern Conference finals. Again.
James scored 29 points, Dwyane Wade added 28 and Ray Allen delivered two huge plays in the final seconds as the Heat rallied to beat the Brooklyn Nets 96-94 on Wednesday night, winning the second-round matchup 4-1.
“It’s always been like that for us,” James said. “It’s never easy. It’s never easy for us.”
Sure looks easy, though. It was the 10th straight series win for the two-time defending NBA champions.
“When we met the first day for prep we said the No. 1 key, overwhelmingly the No. 1 key in this series, was great mental stability,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.
“That’s what it was down the stretch … incredible focus.”
Incredible defense, too, when it was needed most.
Down by eight with less than five minutes left, the Heat forced Brooklyn into nine straight missed shots while peeling off a 12-0 run to take the lead. Allen’s 3-pointer off an assist by Mario Chalmers with 32 seconds remaining was the go-ahead moment, and the Heat wouldn’t trail again.
Allen disrupted Joe Johnson’s dribble on the game’s final play, James then swatted the bouncing ball out of everyone’s reach, time expired – and the Heat advanced.
“Give the Heat credit,” Nets coach Jason Kidd said. “They were attacking there in the fourth quarter. We were attacking. Both teams were attacking. They made plays, they made shots and we didn’t.”
Chris Bosh scored 16 and Allen finished with 13 for Miami. Johnson had 34 points, Paul Pierce scored 19 and Deron Williams had 17 for the Nets.
It’s the sixth trip to the East title series in the last 10 seasons for Miami, which is bidding for a fourth straight trip to the NBA Finals – something only the Lakers and Celtics franchises have accomplished.
James is heading to the East finals for the sixth time in eight seasons, the first two of those trips coming with Cleveland in 2007 and 2009.
The Heat will next face either fifth-seeded Washington or top-seeded Indiana. The Pacers lead that series 3-2, one win away from setting up a rematch with Miami that seemed like an absolute certainty for much of the season.
“Obviously, we thought this was a game we should have won,” Johnson said.
Brooklyn led 49-42 at the half, with Miami missing 15 of its first 16 tries from 3-point range. The Nets closed the half on an 8-0 run and the lone bright spot in the opening 24 minutes for Miami was Wade, who had 20 points – more than any other two players to that point combined – on 7-for-12 shooting.
“He has a way, right? He’s a playoff warrior,” Spoelstra said.
Eventually, barely, Miami broke through. But it took most of the second half to get there, since whenever Miami tried to put together a run Brooklyn found a way to keep things together.
– A layup from James late in the third got the Heat within three; a minute later, the margin was eight again.
– A free throw from James with 9:03 left cut Brooklyn’s lead to 77-73; less than a minute later, it was 82-73 after a 3-pointer by Pierce.
– A 3-pointer by Bosh made it a four-point game again; two Brooklyn possessions and zero Miami stops later, it was 86-78 after a sensational step-back jumper by Johnson. And when Johnson connected on another tough shot with 4:49 left, it was 91-83 and the Nets could sense that the night would be theirs.
Then the Heat scored the next 12 points, and that was enough.
Barely, but enough.
“For us, it was just about getting stops,” Wade said. “We knew offensively that we needed to execute, but we knew we weren’t going to win the game unless we got some stops.”
For the Nets, more than $180 million in salary and luxury tax was supposed to bring a championship. Instead, billionaire owner Mikhail Prokhorov got only a trip to the second round as his return on a massive investment. Brooklyn lost center Brook Lopez to a broken foot after 17 games, struggled through the first two months of the season, then turned it on after Jan. 1.
“We fought back and hung in there this year,” Williams said. “A lot of people counted us out.”
Some big decisions – mainly regarding the futures of Pierce and Kevin Garnett – will have to be made by the Nets. Pierce will be a free agent; Garnett has a year left on his deal, though it’s been speculated he will consider retirement.
Garnett left without comment.
“Emotions are too fresh right now,” Pierce said.
Miami’s future is more clear. The East finals await.
NOTES: Wade had 12 points in the first quarter, his highest-scoring output from an opening period in his last 179 regular-season and playoff games. … Both of Johnson’s 30-point games in these playoffs came on the road. He had 32 at Toronto on April 30.