The Nets have had trouble making LeBron James work.
The standings say that the Heat and Nets are separated by just three games.
The recent records—13-4 for Brooklyn, 8-6 for Miami—suggest that P.J. Carlesimo's rejuvenated team is a serious threat to pass the Heat soon.
And perhaps that's possible if the Heat continues to struggle for motivation over the course of the long season.
But the Nets still need to prove something.
They need to prove, first, that they can keep a game against LeBron James close.
James has beaten the Nets—whether they hailed from the swamp or the sparkling new Barclays Center—16 straight times. He has beaten them eight straight times while in a Heat uniform. And he has beaten them twice, easily, this season at home.
In the first meeting, Miami romped by 30.
In the second, Miami started slow, then rolled over the Nets by 22 in the second half to pull away by 11.
In both cases, Avery Johnson was the coach, and the Nets have been better against the rest of the league since Carlesimo took over. And the Nets certainly have talent, especially in the starting lineup. But Miami has shown that it can get to another gear in the postseason.
So it will take significant progress in several areas for the Nets to become a threat to Miami.
(All quotes in this piece were collected as part of the writer's coverage of the Miami Heat for the Palm Beach Post. All statistics are updated as of Tuesday afternoon.)
Joe Johnson has been the flop against the Heat this season.
Bloated contract aside, you might not think of Joe Johnson as one of the elite two-guards of his era.
Even while being left off the list this season, Johnson has been selected six times.
While playing in the same division, when Johnson was a Hawk, the friends faced each other often.
Over the course of their careers, according to Basketball Reference, Wade leads 14-10, and the difference in individual statistics is more dramatic: Wade averaging 24.0 points on 48.1 percent shooting, and Johnson averaging 17.8 points on 40.6 percent shooting.
This season, as Johnson adjusts to new surroundings and Wade shakes off offseason knee surgery, the Heat guard has had it even easier.
Wade is shooting a sparkling 24-of-34 and averaging 28 points.
Johnson is shooting a sorry 9-of-28 and averaging 10.5 points.
They are not the same style of player, with Wade more of a slasher, Johnson more of a perimeter shooter.
But Johnson should at least appear to be somewhere close to Wade's class.
So far this season, that hasn't been the case.
The Heat chose not to take a chance on Andray Blatche.
Miami can't always afford much in the way of roster reinforcements, not with its top-heavy roster and corresponding salary structure.
Pat Riley likely could, however, have gotten his hands on either Reggie Evans or Andray Blatche.
The Nets grabbed both in free agency for a combined total of $2.5 million this season, with Evans available so cheap because of his offensive limitations and Blatche all but begging for work due to attitude issues.
Now Evans is starting—and leading the Nets in rebounding—while Blatche is averaging 10.6 points in just 19.9 minutes. And that's occurring as the Heat still struggle to find a backup big man worthy of cracking the rotation—whether it's Dexter Pittman or Jarvis Varnado or Chris Andersen or the departed Josh Harrellson.
The emergence of Blatche and Evans has meant a significant slicing to Kris Humphries' role, but that still gives Brooklyn three frontcourt players, in support of centerpiece Brook Lopez, who can exploit Miami's primary weakness:
Its interior play.
The Heat has rebounded a bit better lately, but still have a minus-2.0 rebound differential, while the Nets are at plus-2.0.
Blatche, filling in for Lopez, scored 20 in the teams' last meeting.
Now, with a full frontcourt, the Nets have a chance to give the Heat even greater problems.
Chris Bosh and Brook Lopez are two of the game's better finesse big men.
Someone had to get snubbed.
It would either be the seven-time All-Star who had settled—after some initial struggle—into a role as the third option on a championship team.
Or it would be the talented pivot who had yet to reach his potential due to a series of injuries and, at times, too passive an approach.
And while the first player (Chris Bosh) had gotten the better of the second (Brook Lopez) over the course of their careers, with Bosh's teams winning nine of the 11 matchups and his numbers better in every meaningful category, there was very little separation this season.
These two guys aren't known for their shoving.
But this comparison was pretty much a push.
Lopez is averaging more points on more attempts, as well as more blocks—and doing it in fewer minutes.
Bosh is shooting a slightly higher percentage, grabbing slightly more rebounds and handing out slightly more assists.
Bosh's team has won more, but one of the games the Heat won, Lopez was absent.
While Erik Spoelstra calls Bosh "our most important player," the truth is that the Nets lean on Lopez a bit more, especially offensively.
"He's having a great year," Bosh said. "It was kind of looking shaky for a minute, but they've turned it around, and he's been a big part of that. Everybody knows that's he's a very good basketball player. He's a big body down there, and he has a lot of skill."
It's his will, though, that he must impose on Miami.
The point guard matchup has been much too even.
Mario Chalmers deems himself to be among the elite point guards in the NBA.
Many have long deemed Deron Williams to be among the elite point guards in the NBA.
Early this season, the second statement has seemed almost as farcical as the first.
After a slow start, however, and more whispers about his work ethic and role in a coaching change, Williams has begun to play closer to his former standards.
He shot 38.8 percent in November.
He shot 40.8 percent in December.
He has shot 45.7 percent in January.
His rebounds and points are up, and his turnovers are down.
He's averaging just 12 points on 10-of-26 shooting in two games against the Heat this season, and reserve Norris Cole's quickness has given him problems both times.
Williams' career numbers against the Heat are close to his career numbers overall, and LeBron James and Dwyane Wade certainly view him as a formidable opponent.
As the full-fledged star closest to his prime, at age 28, Williams needs to be great for the Nets to have anything near a good chance of upsetting Miami.
Uh oh, look who scored again.
By the end, the remaining fans were chanting MVP for the man from Miami.
Who knew that the people of Newark could be so nice?
On Apr. 16, with Dwyane Wade sitting, and many of the serviceable Nets sitting too, LeBron James returned to the game with 5:35 left, and proceeded to score Miami's final 17 points in a 101-98 victory.
"Simply sensational down the stretch," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.
Simply predictable against the Nets.
We repeat: He's won 16 straight against this franchise. And while this is a much more talented crew than many he's encountered, it's hard to see what keeps him from getting close to his averages against the Nets—averages of 27.6 points, 7.6 assists and 7.2 rebounds.
The only thing capable of doing so is Spoelstra, who has given James an early seat in both contests this season—contests decided well before the finish.
Gerald Wallace is a sturdy defender, and has tried to play James physically, but it hasn't made much difference.
This season, he's averaging 20.5 points, 10.5 rebounds and 7.0 assists, while shooting 55.6 percent.
So long as Miami has a healthy James, it will be too much for many opponents when it matters, the Nets included.
But they could make people notice if—for a change—they could make James sweat.