Everything the Brooklyn Nets have done over the past year has been with this opportunity in mind.
The daring, foolhardy spending, liquidation of draft picks and arrant emphasis on today at the expense of tomorrow has always been about one thing: upending the Miami Heat.
Each year, since 2010-11, there are those who try talking themselves into an Eastern Conference uprising. This is the year Miami falls. This time it's going to be different.
Responsibility was placed upon the Chicago Bulls in 2011. Led by MVP Derrick Rose, they could best Miami. They fell in five games. In 2012, it was the aging, teeth-gnashing Boston Celtics who posed the greatest threat. They fought admirably, before falling in seven.
Last year, it was the in-vogue Indiana Pacers who ruffled Miami's feathers. Piloted by a rising star in Paul George, an elephantine-sized Roy Hibbert, a blissfully ambiguous Lance Stephenson and a round-the-clock defense, they, too, pushed the Heat to seven games. And they, too, lost.
Immediately after the Heat made their third straight NBA Finals appearance and won their second consecutive title, the Nets made a power play, mortgaging their future for Boston's Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, hoping to infuse some of that 2012 Celtics grit into their roster.
Other teams have since flirted with the idea of challenging the Heat. The Bulls were primed for a run at the reigning champs after welcoming back Rose...until he went down again. The New York Knicks' successful 2012-13 season figured to play a significant role in the Eastern Conference's ever-shifting power structure...until it didn't. The Pacers appeared ready to dethrone the Heat long before the postseason started...until they weren't.
Records and absence of youth be damned, the Nets have emerged as Miami's most intimidating obstacle. The Knicks and Bulls are long gone, and the Pacers are still trying to wrap their heads around whatever Hibbert is doing.
Since the Nets' second regular-season victory over the Heat, this matchup felt inevitable. No one quite knew when it would take place—first round, second round or Eastern Conference Finals—but it was going to happen.
And it is.
But will it be everything it's been cracked up to be?
Getting Up for Miami
The groundwork for the idea that Brooklyn could contend with Miami was laid in November.
After falling to the Cleveland Cavaliers on opening night, the Nets hosted the Heat at Barclays Center and treated their fans to a 101-100 victory. One game. Whatever.
Then January came around. The Nets were 15-20 and, despite a four-game winning streak, were considered insignificant stepping stones. They won again, this time in double overtime, 104-95.
No matter, though. They were on a winning streak. Both wins came at home. Chill.
The Nets finally traveled to Miami in March. They had saved their season by this point and were lurking above .500 at 32-30. But they were also on the Heat's turf. There would be no late-game shenanigans here.
Except there were.
Pierce exploded for 29 points—17 in the third quarter—and made a few crucial buckets as the Nets squeaked by the Heat once again, winning 96-95.
Even then, the prospect of a series sweep seemed ridiculous. No way, no how.
In the fourth meeting between both teams, the Nets won. Again. And they won while playing in Miami. Again.
This little backstory is important. Most will argue the Nets have a chance to dethrone the Heat because of those four victories. And why not?
The Nets took down the Heat four times in this season alone. There are 15 NBA teams that haven't won four games against Miami during the Big Three era. Why not be excited? Why not question the outcome of this best-of-seven clash?
Something about the Heat reaches the Nets—especially Pierce, who often uses LeBron James and friends as clutch-test dummies. When compared to his overall regular-season numbers, The Truth's averages against them are truly ridiculous:
|Paul Pierce's Heat Check|
Next time someone tells you Pierce doesn't treat the Heat differently, deliver a much-needed dose of common sense in the form of repeated slaps (Pierce's trademark scowl optional). He absolutely approaches them differently. Those 21.3 points per game were the most he's averaged against any team this season.
Joe Johnson even seems to have adopted Pierce's taste for torching the reigning champs. Playing them has brought out the absolute best in him, too.
|Joe "Stick It to the Heat" Johnson|
It doesn't matter that Deron Williams is shooting 33.3 percent against Miami this season. Or that Garnett missed two of the four regular-season contests between these two. Or that the Nets have relied on players to post above-average numbers.
The team the Nets were built to beat is the team they get up for most. More importantly, it's the team they've also beaten.
Try finding a team more enraptured by tightly contested encounters than the Nets.
Clock winding down, game on the line, pressure mounting—those are the moments they play for. It wasn't always evident throughout the regular season; they connected on a paltry 33.7 percent of their shots during the final two minutes of games in which they were ahead or behind by no more than three points, according to NBA.com (subscription required).
But it was apparent against the Heat.
Three of their four wins came by one point. Whether it was Johnson, Pierce or somebody else, the Nets showed they had the stones necessary to hold off Miami.
That gall helped them defeat Toronto as well. Ahead by one, with 6.2 seconds remaining in Game 7, the Nets needed defense to save their season.
“Fellas,” Jason Kidd said in the huddle, via the New York Post's Mike Vaccaro, “we need to get a stop.”
They got a stop.
Kyle Lowry attacked, found himself swarmed by Nets players, stumbled, somehow managed to get a shot off and Pierce was there to come up with the block.
Big-time players make those plays. Moments like those cannot always be measured or quantified. Sometimes, it's as simple as asking: Can you rely on Player X late in the game or not?
The Nets have the luxury of relying on Johnson and Pierce. There's even Garnett, who played an integral part of turning Lowry's final possession into utter chaos. The Nets have players who can be counted on, who won't shrink in the moment.
They have late-game onions. Lots of them.
Enough for the Heat to be on alert.
Blank Slates Trump All
Regular seasons don't count now.
Previous postseason rounds don't count, either.
The Nets have fought the Heat admirably this year, but four regular-season victories mean nothing now. And if we wanted to play that regular-season matters game, the Heat have ammunition of their own.
Really, really inconsistent:
"Regular season doesn’t indicate anything," James said per the Miami Herald's Barry Jackson.
It didn't matter that Chicago took down the Heat three times in 2010-11. It didn't matter that Boston did the same in 2011-12.
It doesn't matter that the Nets have beaten the Heat four times this year.
It doesn't matter that the Nets posted a higher winning percentage than the Heat after Jan. 1.
It doesn't even matter that the Heat rank fifth in field-goal percentage during the final two minutes of games they trail or lead by no more than three points, per NBA.com (subscription required).
Things change now. Almost everything changes.
If there's a team in the Eastern Conference that can dispatch the Heat, it's the Nets. That much hasn't changed. It's not the Pacers who pose an imminent threat with the way they've been playing. It is these veteran Nets.
Kidd has his troops sapping every last second off the shot clock in an attempt to dictate pace. He's also been unpredictable, which, as Skolnick explains, has come in handy:
Kidd has shown a willingness to feed the hot hand, without other players—even more accomplished players—giving him the cold shoulder.
The approach worked well enough to win the three games he coached against the Heat this season, two by one point and once in double overtime.
It worked well enough to win a Game 7 in hostile Toronto, becoming the first first-year NBA coach to win a Game 7 on the road in 19 tries.
Success by committee, without regard for status or salary, can be enough to get under the Heat's skin. It's helped the Nets win before; it will help them win again.
But just because the Nets are equipped to upset the Heat doesn't mean they will.
"Miami won two championships," Pierce said, via the Sun Sentinel's Shandel Richardson. "We're still trying to earn our respect, as a team, as a franchise, as the city of Brooklyn."
In a series bound to be determined by the unknown—health, pace, hot streaks, etc.—the Nets are still the more untested party. Their recent success against Miami is both promising and confusing.
Tactical unpredictability is their greatest weapon—a tool that arms them with the potential to seize this opportunity, but conclusively fails to render them more than an entertaining two- or three-win threat.
*Stats via NBA.com (subscription required) unless otherwise noted.