EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) — P.J. Carlesimo is convinced after a month on the job: The Brooklyn Nets are a winning team.
He still needs to see, even after one of the best months in franchise history, if they can consistently be one against the teams already at that level.
Well, here comes their chance.
The Nets begin a tough three-game stretch Wednesday night against LeBron James and the NBA champion Miami Heat, who have won the last 12 meetings and remain the league's standard in Carlesimo's eyes.
"They're the best team in the league until somebody beats them," Carlesimo said Tuesday after practice. "Maybe when the year's out and we've played 82 games, somebody will have a better record than them. But they're still the champions and they're still going to the finals on a pretty regular basis, so until somebody knocks them off, this to me is the barometer you measure against and we haven't shown yet that we can beat these guys. So that's a huge challenge for us."
So are the Chicago Bulls at home on Friday, and the Los Angeles Lakers next Tuesday. Starting Wednesday on ESPN, it's the kind of high-profile stretch that can earn the Nets, who may be a little overlooked despite a 27-18 record, some added respect within the league.
"It's a nice stretch for us," guard Joe Johnson said. "I wouldn't say a tough one, but it's a nice one and we should be ready and prepared for this challenge. But we're going to start first with Miami and try to get over that hump."
The Heat already beat the Nets twice this season — "smacked," says Carlesimo, who described another Nets defeat as "annihilated," apparently believing that when the Nets fall, "losing" isn't enough of a description.
Luckily for them, it hasn't happened often since Carlesimo was promoted to interim coach when Avery Johnson was fired on Dec. 27.
They have since gone 13-4, winning eight straight at home and pulling within 1 1/2 games of the neighboring Knicks for first place in the Atlantic Division. The Nets have tied a franchise record for the most wins in January and can equal their best total in any month with a victory Wednesday.