MIAMI — They were face to face at the start Tuesday, LeBron James and Paul Pierce, as they have been so often in the spring. This time, they shared a chuckle before the struggle, with James telling Pierce that it was "only right" that they see each other again, this way, with something at stake.
"Paul is almost, I don't know, like a family member now at this point," James said. "It's like when you go to a family reunion, and you don't ever see that cousin until the family reunion, that's what Paul is to me. I mean, I got nine straight postseasons and I've seen Paul like five of them. First it was me changing a uniform, and now it's him changing a uniform, and we still see each other."
James and the Miami Heat know so many of these Brooklyn Nets so well from prior battles that they knew something else for sure, before the start of this second-round series. They knew that they would almost always be face to face, locked in the half court, on both ends of the floor. That's because the Nets wouldn't set out to outrun them, and they certainly wouldn't allow the Heat to run by.
"They get the hell back, man," Chris Bosh said. "Especially against us."
"Of course we want to run more," Mario Chalmers said. "But at the same time, take what's given to us."
That's what made Miami's 107-86 victory so impressive, and such a testament to what it can accomplish when fresh and focused, poised and patient.
The Heat, often reliant on the live-ball turnovers that generate their open-court offense, had just four steals for the game—none until the third quarter—and just four transition points, and still shot their highest percentage (56.8) in more than two months. They did what Bosh said they might need to do, after the last of four losses to Brooklyn during the regular season.
They won at the Nets' slowdown game.
They worked their sets to completion, frequently executing to perfection, enough so that five players scored in double figures and eight players scored at least six points against a team that most had declared significantly deeper.
"We have balance like that, we're really difficult to beat," said Shane Battier, elevated to starter in place of Udonis Haslem to the Nets' preponderance of perimeter threats. "The ball was really hopping, and that's what we have to do against a team that tries to flatten you out."
Flatten you out, and drag out the clock, until you mentally wear down.
"With their switching defense, they make you real lazy, and we were really lazy against them offensively during the regular season," Battier said.
That led to shooting and scoring under their seasonal averages.
"Before, we got caught in iso situations a lot," Bosh said. "They'll try to flatten you out all the time, and kind of fell into that web a little bit during the season. That was a point of emphasis, to really move the ball, not let them get set and pass off switches and being able to use their hands—because they've got really good hands down low. Once they're set, we started taking a lot of contested jumpers, and that's not good."
"Everybody was being unselfish," Chalmers said. "We took the shots when we had them. When we didn't, we got to second situations. We just tried to keep it moving."
"We showed much better energy," Battier said. "You have to move the ball, move your body."
The ball movement was reminiscent of some of the Heat's best early-season work, before they went through some stagnant stretches. That frequently led to an open three toward the end of the shot clock, with Ray Allen making 4-of-7 to outscore his former Celtics teammates Pierce and Kevin Garnett by a count of 19 to 8.
"We didn't panic," Allen said. "You saw the ball move and it went from one side to the other. And guys were just in tune. It was four, five seconds, and the coach was saying, 'Take your time, there's still time.' And then we got a good shot almost every time. We got to the hole, we made the extra pass. We had a good cadence to our offense tonight."
They had a good balance.
"We attacked their closeouts," James said.
But they also showed the necessary caution.
"Over the course of the season, you see us throw so many passes over the top, cross-court passes," Allen said. "Tonight, you see that hesitation. Well, like, no...(instead), I'll bring it up and I'll swing it this way. There was much more deliberation with what we did on offense. Going with the A-B-C pass as opposed to the A to D pass, and it made our offense so much better and more efficient."
It made the Nets crack, time and again.
"Mistakes," said Garnett, who was scoreless in 16 minutes. "When we made mistakes, they made us pay for them."
"Our defensive game plan wasn't executed at all," Deron Williams said. "I got beat on a couple backdoor cuts. Theme of the night was layups, layups, layups. When you give up 52 points in the paint, it's hard to overcome."
As Pierce put it, "We've got to put up the necessary resistance."
They'll be face to face again Thursday, with the Nets facing a deficit.
"After eight days off of not playing a game, I feared the rhythm, but now I don't fear it anymore," James said, after an efficient 22-point performance. "After the way we played tonight, that's a step in the direction we want to keep going in."
Until he, slowly but surely, leaves Cousin Paul behind.