They won't have to look far. The Brooklyn Nets come to town April 8.
The Nets are 3-0 in their three regular-season meetings with the Heat, and they also picked up a pair of preseason wins—if you're inclined to place any value in exhibition play.
Unbothered, the Heat aren't fixated on picking apart the reasons behind their inability to beat the Nets. Instead, they're focusing on the basics.
"All we have to know about Brooklyn is we haven't beaten them this year, including the preseason," head coach Erik Spoelstra told Shandel Richardson of the South Florida Sun Sentinel.
Simple enough, huh?
Don't be fooled by Spoelstra's reductiveness. He's as relentless a schemer as there is in the league, and you can bet he'll be buried under a metric ton of videotape from the prior three matchups (figuratively speaking. Nobody uses actual tape anymore) before the Heat tip off against Brooklyn for matchup number four.
No matter what happens when the two teams clash for their final regular season meeting, Brooklyn will emerge with a clear overall advantage in the head-to-head standings. What'll that mean for Chris Bosh and the rest of the Heat as they gear up for the playoffs?
"It just means they're stiff competition," Bosh told Richardson. "The playoffs are a different game. If it gives them confidence, it gives them confidence. But for us, we have supreme confidence that if we come, prepare and do what we're supposed to do, we feel we can beat anybody."
It's reasonable for Bosh to minimize the importance of regular season games. When you win a couple of titles, you earn the right to brush off trivialities.
But are the Heat underestimating a dangerous foe? Could the Nets, one of the hottest teams in the league over the past few months, extend their regular-season success into a playoff upset against Miami?
The key to determining how much Brooklyn's regular-season work against Miami will matter in the playoffs is in parsing out repeatable trends from flukes.
As an extreme example, if Kevin Garnett had somehow averaged 11 made threes per game in the Nets' trio of wins, we could comfortably discount that as a sign of future success.
Fictitious KG marksmanship aside, there is something critical about all three Nets wins this year that suggests the Heat could be in a bit of trouble.
Put simply, the Nets know how to slow things down to a pace Miami doesn't like.
Per Richardson, Brooklyn forward Paul Pierce understands how vital tempo is against the Heat:
We don’t like to see them getting up and down, getting dunks, crowd getting into it. That’s pretty much their game. Keep them away from that, and I think for the most part we’ve been able to do that. That’s why we’ve fared pretty well against them.
The Nets rank 29th in that same category, which shows they clearly prefer a slower pace.
There's more: The Heat play at an overall pace of 93.46 possessions per 48 minutes, per NBA.com. Against the Nets, that number drops to 88.82, meaning things slow down considerably when these teams clash.
"Slow it down" is the mantra for every Heat opponent, though. Everyone knows letting the Heat create chaos with defensive traps (which invariably lead to runouts in the other direction) is inviting disaster. It's not groundbreaking to suggest a slow pace somewhat limits Miami's preferred method of attack.
But the Nets seem equipped to do the job better than most, and the evidence from this season supports that notion. Only the New York Knicks and Memphis Grizzlies forced the Heat into a slower tempo this season.
With veterans like Garnett and Pierce who've succeeded in winning slowed-down, uglied-up games for years, it seems Brooklyn should be able to carry its regular-season recipe for success into the playoffs.
Unfortunately for the Nets, a different set of signs indicate they'll have trouble keeping the Heat out of transition, regardless of how much the pace slows.
In their meetings with Miami this year, Brooklyn has turned the ball over at a rate of 17.1 times per 100 possessions, a worse figure than the 15.1 turnover rate they've posted on the year as a whole. Miami typically forces a turnover rate of 15.7, so Brooklyn is actually less secure with the ball than most teams who face the Heat.
We don't have data to parse out live-ball and dead-ball turnovers, which is a huge component to measuring the relationship between ball security and transition opportunities. But it's fair to assume that with enough giveaways, the Heat will eventually get out and run.
In this sense, Brooklyn has actually been somewhat lucky against the Heat.
In addition, Garnett seems to think ball movement has been a key to the Nets' success, per Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald: "We get exceptional ball movement. We have different weapons. When we’ve played them, we’ve played to a high level of confidence and been aggressive. Against great teams, you have to do that.”
Broadly speaking, Garnett's not wrong. Opponents can burn the Heat for open threes when the ball moves quickly enough to thwart its overextended, overly aggressive defense.
Where KG is mistaken, though, is in his contention that the Nets have succeeded in keeping the ball moving in a way that creates open looks.
Brooklyn has registered assists on 58.3 percent of its baskets this season, per NBA.com. That figure places the Nets right in the middle of the NBA pack. They don't move the ball particularly well in general, and against the Heat, that number drops to 57 percent.
Taken together, the Nets' issues with ball security and low assist rates don't suggest they'll be able to keep the Heat from trapping on defense and, as a result, getting the ball out in transition.
Look, there are tons of other factors to consider here. The Nets can toss out undersized lineups that match up well with Miami. They can bother LeBron James and Dwyane Wade with a number of rangy wings. They have options and can play in a number of styles to give the Heat problems.
But it's not as though the Nets have some outstanding statistical advantage screaming that they're ideally built to beat Miami.
Remember, Brooklyn's three wins haven't exactly been decisive. It has registered a pair of one-point victories and a double-overtime win. Give the Nets credit for notching W's, but note at the same time that all three contests could have easily gone the other way.
In terms of predictive value, all we can really say about those three wins is that Brooklyn played Miami to three coin-flip outcomes and was fortunate to win all three. Granted, that's better than most opponents can say about their success against the Heat, and it could indicate a good series.
But it's nothing close to suggesting the Nets are somehow "dominant" against Miami.
Besides, the Nets actually have to make it out of the first round before they even get a crack at the Heat. Given their potential opponents, that's hardly a foregone conclusion. Brooklyn is currently the No. 5 seed and will face either the Chicago Bulls or Toronto Raptors.
They have a 1-2 mark against Chicago and a 2-2 record against the Raptors. So let's not pencil Brooklyn into the second round just yet.
The Heat's belief that regular-season records don't matter in the playoffs is a product of their recent history. They've been beaten up by opponents before, only to blow past them in the playoffs, per Jackson of the Herald:
But also keep this in mind: The Heat went 1-3 in the regular season against Boston and 0-3 against Chicago in 2010-11, then ousted both in five-game playoff series. In 2011-12, Miami again went 1-3 against Boston during the regular season, then eliminated the Celtics in a seven-game Eastern Conference Finals.
Ultimately, Brooklyn has proved it can hang with the Heat in the regular season. But that 3-0 mark isn't as predictive as it seems. We know Miami does things differently in the playoffs, and we have to give more weight to that legacy than three toss-up games from earlier this season.
If Brooklyn makes a huge statement in securing its fourth win on Tuesday, it might be time to re-evaluate things. But even then, the Heat probably won't be too concerned.
They'll respect the Nets because of their veteran roster, grit, and way down the list, their record in head-to-head matchups this year.
But that record won't—and shouldn't—cause the Heat to worry about a playoff upset.
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