POSTED: May 4, 2014 7:50 PM ET
Paul Pierce calls facing LeBron James the "ultimate challenge."
The Heat probably won't admit it, but they must have had some interest in watching and seeing who their Eastern Conference Semifinals opponent turned out to be. During the regular season, the Heat went 4-0 against the Raptors. Against the Nets, the Heat went 0-4.
And now that the Brooklyn Nets have squeaked past the Toronto Raptors in seven games to set up an Eastern Conference semifinals matchup against the two-time defending champion Miami Heat, we get to see whether the Heat can solve the only team that beat them four times in the 2013-14 regular season. As well, we'll see if the Nets can prosper in what appears to be their preferred matchup since the last weeks of the season.
Nets-Heat Series Preview
To be certain, the Nets' starting lineup presents matchup problems for the Heat. With Brooklyn coach Jason Kidd using Paul Pierce as a small power forward, the Heat don't really have a starter on their frontline with the quickness to stay with Pierce on the perimeter. This showed in the regular season stats, as Pierce averaged 21.3 points per game against Miami this season. Joe Johnson was nearly as equally destructive, averaging 19.5 against the Heat.
Once the Miami Heat polished off the Charlotte Bobcats in four games in their first-round series, the Heat had a week to sit back and wait for their opponent to be determined. While they couldn't spend the entire timing scheming against the Nets, perhaps most importantly the Heat got some time off. As they chase a third-consecutive championship, they're trying to manage wear and tear as best as they can, and having over a week off benefits everyone, but probably no player more than Dwyane Wade, who missed 28 regular season games in an attempt to stay fresh.
The Heat may have struggled against the Nets this season, but if you listen the Heat players, they don't seem to feel overwhelmed at the idea of squaring off against Brooklyn. "I don't think we played our best basketball again them," Ray Allen told the South Florida Sun Sentinel.
"When I think about the games, we had inconsistent lineups. But guys that were in there played well, but we just didn't play well enough, and defensively weren't good. So hats off to them because they beat us four times. But we didn't particularly like how we played in those games."
Meanwhile, moments after beating the Raptors, Pierce was quick to note that despite their regular-season record against the Heat, they still have work to do. Pierce called facing off against LeBron, "the ultimate challenge."
"When you play against the best, as a competitor, you want those moments," said Pierce. "If you look at all the great competitors in this league, they want to play against the other best [players], to see where they are, to see how they measure up throughout history. When you play against the best like LeBron, it brings out the best in I think everyone. I think that's in any sport, when you're a great competitor. And I consider myself a great competitor, who wants to be in those moments, who wants to play against who people call the best."
1. How did these teams fare against each other in regular season meetings?
As we mentioned above, the Nets swept the Heat, 4-0. Against the Nets this season, Miami averaged 94.3 points per game, well below their regular season average of 102.2 per game. Against the Heat, Brooklyn averaged 97.3 points per game, right around their season average.
2. How has Dwyane Wade performed this postseason? With Miami, you basically know what you're going to get each night from LeBron, but Wade has to continue to produce. After scoring 23 points in Game 1 against Charlotte, Wade settled back and averaged 15.6 the rest of the way in about 30 minutes per night. Wade averaged 19 points per game in the regular season. The Heat could use that kind of production in the second round, as well.
3. Which Deron Williams will show up? Brooklyn's All-Star point guard has had an up-and-down season, battling injuries and shifting lineups around him. In Game 6 against the Raptors, Williams was brilliant, scoring 23 points in 38 minutes. Against a Miami team that has historically struggled versus quicker point guards, Williams needs to press the issue, forcing the Heat to focus on him and open things up for his teammates.
4. Can Miami stop Brooklyn in the paint? The Heat have struggled to rebound the last few seasons, and they'll have their hands full against the Nets. During the regular season matchups, the Nets outrebounded Miami by an average of 40-34. Even without injured center Brook Lopez, the Nets have plenty of size, including Garnett, Blatche and Mason Plumlee.
5. Could Miami have had too much time off? By the time Game 1 against Brooklyn begins, the Heat will have had eight days off. Don't forget last season, after sweeping the Bucks in the first round and enjoying a long layoff, the Heat lost Game 1 at home against the
Everything begins and ends with LeBron James. As arguably the most complete player in the NBA, James usually defends opposing forwards, but offensively spends most of his time initiating offense from the perimeter. This includes shooting threes and longer jumpers, as well as driving, and driving and kicking to find teammates -- against Charlotte, James led the Heat with 6 assists per game.
The other two-thirds of the big three, Wade and Bosh, are the Heat's best secondary offensive options. Wade doesn't have the speed and athleticism he had a few years ago, but he can still create shots for himself and still gets to the free throw line. Bosh has developed into a specialist of sorts, a stretch four who can knock down threes and doesn't venture into the pain as often as he used to.
After the Big Three, you get into what the Heat players call "the Little 12."
Which player will produce from night to night? That's mostly undefined until the games begin, and Spoelstra has been known to mix and match lineups depending on the opponent, looking for something that works. One player to keep an eye on is James Jones, who hardly played in the regular season and didn't play in any of the four losses to Brooklyn, but played regular minutes and shot better than Ray Allen in the Charlotte series.
Part of what makes the Nets a dangerous opponent is their ability to use multiple players to initiate offense. As good as Deron Williams is, when the Nets spread the floor with Pierce and Joe Johnson on opposite sides, they're able to attack from either wing.
It will be interesting to see if the Nets are able to get offensive production from Kevin Garnett, especially in the post. Garnett prefers to work on the perimeter, but Miami is vulnerable inside, and Garnett (who has been logging about 20 minutes per night) will have to make Miami pay.
Also worth noting: Shaun Livingston and Mirza Teletovic also averaged double figures against Miami this season.
The Nets have options. Paul Pierce is one of the NBA's greatest clutch shot-makers ever. Joe Johnson also presents a unique late-game option as a guy who can create and get a shot off against almost any defender. Deron Williams can take players off the dribble, and Kevin Garnett's mid-range jumper is as solid as ever.
For Miami, they have this James guy, who has silenced those who accused him of not being clutch and become a terrific late game performer. His remarkable versatility is what makes him so dangerous late in games, particularly his ability to get to the rim (or the free throw line) against any defender or defense.
One thing the Heat will not have going for them in this matchup is the intimidation factor. The Nets are a veteran team, almost to a fault, and their players (particularly Garnett, Pierce and Johnson) have played enough games against LeBron and company not to fear walking into American Airlines Arena or lining up against the Big Three.
Can Brooklyn stop Miami's point guards? Norris Cole and Mario Chalmers combined to average 21 points per game against the Nets this season.
Brooklyn's Alan Anderson started the Toronto series coming off the bench before moving into the starting lineup for Game 6 and 7, and his versatility helped push Brooklyn to taking the series. It's worth watching to see if Kidd shakes up his lineups or rotations further.
This will be a high-profile series for a conference semifinals. Despite the Nets downplaying their confidence, going 4-0 against Miami this season gives them a confidence bump. Similarly, the Heat know how to win in the postseason, and having home-court advantage will be huge. At the end of the day, Miami has one thing that in my mind separates them from the Nets: LeBron James. It's good to be King.
Heat in 7.