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.
Along the way, they won at Oklahoma City and New York, the kind of performances that give the Nets reason for confidence going into this stretch.
``When we play the way we're capable of playing ... we've beaten a couple of the better teams in the league, even on the road, so we just got to play,'' Carlesimo said. ``We're playing in our place, which is a huge plus for us.''
The Nets rebounded from their first two-game losing streak under Carlesimo with a 97-77 victory over Orlando on Monday. Yet Carlesimo was still dwelling Tuesday on the losses last week at Memphis and Houston that saddled them with a 2-2 mark on a road trip which began with an impressive victory over the Knicks.
``After the steps we took back last week, we have to show that we can be - not that we can be good, we've established that - but that we can be good consistently and that we can be good against the better teams,'' Carlesimo said.
Carlesimo was looking beyond the three-game stretch all the way to the All-Star game. The Nets have another difficult patch leading into the Feb. 14-17 break, facing San Antonio, Indiana and Denver over a four-night stretch.
They seem far more prepared, and a certainly more stable now than in the final days under Johnson, when they fell apart in December after he had led them to 11 wins and Eastern Conference coach of the month honors in November.
``I think we're starting to really finally find out who we are as a team and who we are as individuals and what we can do to help this team win ballgames,'' Johnson said.
Carlesimo still needs to see more, and this would be a nice time.
``Am I happy where we're at? Yes, but very, very sure that we've got a long way to go,'' he said. ``I like where we are, relative to where we were, but we're not anywhere where we need to be.''
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