Might there be a new Eastern Conference peril threatening to vanquish the reigning champion Miami Heat?
Dwyane Wade's continued absence and all, the Heat are still favorites out East. They always have been. They have to be.
Despite a tumultuous and notion-amending, expectation-destroying start to the season, the Nets live on. From tattered, expensive rags to productive, well-balanced riches, they've flipped the script on what initially appeared to be one of the most disappointing seasons ever just in time to contend for a top-three playoff spot.
It's not as if the first part of this season never happened. Brooklyn's dumpster fire sits fresh in the minds of everyone with a sound memory. Some things can't be erased and some unsavory recollections linger, no matter how much time and distance is put between the past and present.
Yet for all of their conflicts, for all of their underachieving, these Nets have always done the one thing they were assembled to do: Fend off the Heat.
Perhaps better than anyone else.
Sweet Game, Sweeter Sweep
Proponents of nail-biting basketball were treated to a humdinger Tuesday night.
There was tension and suspense, efficient shooting and pace-chafing defense. There were questions and answers, followed by answers to those answers, and so on. Drama unfolded in the final minutes and seconds.
In the end, the Heat left the court, angry and defeated, leaving a playoff-type atmosphere in their wake. It was a game worthy of the Eastern Conference Finals, and an outcome demanding reflection.
Only it wasn't the Pacers who were scratching and clawing at the Heat to the bitter end. It was the Nets. The same Nets who have upended Miami four times this season.
Controversy invaded American Airlines Arena Tuesday night. After getting out to a 12-point first-quarter lead, the Nets saw the Heat fight back in the second quarter. By the end of the third, the Heat had captured the lead. But the Nets responded by shooting 68.8 percent from the floor in the fourth, taking a one-point advantage into the closing seconds.
On the game's final possession, the Heat invariably found LeBron James, putting the conclusion in his explosive, determined hands, as Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick details:
LeBron James was coming for much more than that. He was coming for control of the Eastern Conference's top spot. He was coming to avoid the embarrassment of a four-game season sweep to Brooklyn. He was coming, with a one-point deficit and the buzzer bearing down, for a game-winning slam that would salvage another of the Heat's uneven evenings.
He was coming fast, with all his fury and force. Catching cleanly on the edge of the paint. Hopping forward, then landing on, and launching again off, both feet. Breezing past Marcus Thornton, brushing off the hand of Joe Johnson, sizing up his poor Plumlee prey.
Mason Plumlee against LeBron James—a matchup no one dreams about.
That is, until now.
As James rose up for a two-handed jam, Plumlee intervened and blocked part of the ball, inevitably winding up hand-in-hand with the NBA's best player.
Was James fouled? Was Plumlee's contest clean? That's a matter of interpretation and, as Skolnick points out, affiliation. There's no denying, however, that it was a fitting end to a grueling, season-long battle.
Mason Plumlee said his block was clean and "at the end of games, you have to earn it."— Stefan Bondy (@NYDNInterNets) April 9, 2014
LeBron: "It was a foul. That's my thought. I should have been at the line."— Ethan J. Skolnick (@EthanJSkolnick) April 9, 2014
The Nets swept their regular-season series against the Heat. That's four wins, giving them more victories over the Heat this year than 20 of the 28 other NBA teams have over them since 2010-11, when the Big Three first joined forces.
No one has ever swept James' team in a four-game series—not just since he's been in Miami, but for his entire career:
Crazy stat of the day: Nets are 1st team to ever sweep a LeBron James team in a 4-game season series. (via @EliasSports)— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) April 9, 2014
Three of those four wins have come by one point, so it's not as if the Nets have bulldozed the Heat each and every time they've met. But those are still wins.
Convincing, playoff-type wins.
Pacing the Pacers
Crowning the Nets, Miami's biggest threat would ignore the Pacers, who spent most of this season perched atop the Eastern Conference, leering down at everybody else, including the Heat.
But the Pacers are ignoring the Pacers. Or rather, they're ignoring their responsibilities and their self-bestowed status.
The Pacers have lost eight of their last 11, a stretch unsightly enough to cost them first place and what little offensive dignity they had possessed. The Nets, meanwhile, continue to thrive.
Unlike the Pacers, they're fielding a balanced attack that can win games on both sides of the floor. Where the Pacers are defense or bust, the Nets are equipped to win shootouts or slow-paced, prevention-heavy slugfests.
Balance is important in any series against the Heat who, even when they're struggling, boast one of the NBA's more symmetrical dynamics. On any given night, it can be their offense or their defense that carries them.
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Of the top-five Eastern Conference teams, the Nets, along with the Toronto Raptors, have put forth equally dangerous efforts on either end of the floor since Jan. 1. And where the Nets may be rivaled in balance, they pull away with wins.
No other top-five team has won more than twice over the Heat. The Raptors have lost all four of their meetings, the Chicago Bulls have won twice and the Pacers have an opportunity to win a third time on April 11.
By a show of hands, who believes the Pacers will actually win that game, given how poorly they've been playing?
Timing is everything. The Nets are surging at the right time, while the Pacers are fading fast. Things aren't going to get any better in Indiana either.
In light of recent failures, key Pacers are going to rest down the stretch, per Pacers.com's Scott Agness:
Vogel said PG and DWest, two guys that have played every game, came to him about rest. Vogel regrets not giving them more days off In March.— Scott Agness (@ScottAgness) April 8, 2014
Seriously? After repeatedly emphasizing the importance of first place, this is how the Pacers are going to finish the regular season, by waving the white flag?
Maybe it would be different if the Pacers had depth, but they don't. According to HoopStats.com, their bench ranks 18th in differential. Brooklyn's checks in at 10th.
That matters. The Nets took down the Heat without Kevin Garnett and Andray Blatche. They have successfully battled Brook Lopez's absence for most of this season. Indiana's reserves aren't talented enough to make up that sort of ground. If Frank Vogel rests some of his starters against the Heat, the Pacers are going to lose.
Rest won't be an option in the playoffs, but a lack of depth can hurt. Nonexistent versatility can kill.
Throw wins out the window. Keep coming back to that—balance. The Pacers can win one way and one way only: if they're allowed to play their limited style of basketball.
On the nights they're not, on the nights their defense is met by good offense and defense, they're likely to lose.
Not A Laughing Matter
Are the Nets the Heat's biggest threat in the Eastern Conference?
TNT's Craig Sager asked James that very question after Miami's fourth loss to Brooklyn.
"Get out of here, Craig," James said laughing, dismissing the question as if it were funny.
Except it's not. There's nothing silly about this question, nothing impulsive about its existence.
Four times. The Nets have unseated the Heat four times. It doesn't make them better than the Heat. It doesn't even make them favorites in a best-of-seven series. Shoot, it doesn't even guarantee they'll make it far enough in the playoffs to face the Heat. But it does matter. And it's not funny.
As well as some other teams have played—most notably the Bulls and Raptors—there are only two teams that should give Miami hints of pause: Brooklyn and Indiana. The Bulls aren't offensively deep enough, and the Raptors simply aren't there yet.
At the moment, neither are the Pacers.
Originally considered the Heat's greatest foe, they're floundering at the most inopportune time. Though they've yet to lay an egg against the Heat, they've yet to show they can sustain the level of play and balance necessary to improve upon last year's postseason performance.
Which Eastern Conference team is biggest threat to the Heat?
Long before now, the Nets were built to beat the Heat. Their future was mortgaged, and owner Mikhail Prokhorov's bank account drained to challenge the Heat. Paul Pierce and Garnett were brought in to be prickling thorns in Miami's side.
"But we know if we’re going to try to win the championship this year we’re probably going to have to go through Miami," Pierce said, per the New York Daily News' Stefan Bondy.
Gone is the tendency to measure the Nets against previous regular-season expectations. They haven't run the table, they are not a juggernaut. They are a postseason team, top to bottom, existing only for this time of year, for games and opponents like this, more so than any other Eastern Conference team outside Miami can say right now.