Before Tuesday night, the Brooklyn Nets figured to be a difficult matchup for the Miami Heat. But in coasting to a 107-86 victory over the visitors in Game 1 of the series, Miami demonstrated it has something of a blueprint for bouncing Brooklyn.
The case for a competitive series, before last night at least, appeared to be a strong one.
Exhibit No. 1 was what Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and company managed to pull off against the twice-defending champs during the regular season: Though each victory was of the skin-of-its-teeth variety—three by a single point plus a double-overtime win—Brooklyn ran off a 4-0 record against Miami before the postseason began.
Two of the Nets' key figures, again, Garnett and Pierce, had also enjoyed some success against James in the regular season, furthering the impression that Brooklyn might be a tough out for Miami.
There was also the matter of the Nets' tremendous close to the season, when their “long-ball” lineup—prominently featuring Lazarus-like veteran Shaun Livingston—ran off a 33-13 record between the New Year and April 8. This is a considerably better mark than the Heat managed in that time.
The Nets, Grantland’s Zach Lowe wrote, seemed an ideal opponent for the champs:
The Nets are a perfect foil for Miami. Pierce and Kevin Garnett feel legitimate hostility toward the Heat stars. Brooklyn’s front office put real stock in the notion of collecting players who would be unafraid of Miami’s speed and athleticism in the postseason crucible. The Boston guys have been there before, Joe Johnson’s blood pressure never changes, Deron Williams is allegedly a superstar (spoiler alert: He’s not), the team is stocked with heady vets, and Andrei Kirilenko’s hairstyle has mysterious hypnotic powers.
But this was, alas, all before expectations of a competitive series went crashing against the unforgiving banks of reality at American Airlines Arena last night, when the Heat used a 24-9 run in the third quarter to turn what was a close game into a rout. The Heat were coming off an eight-day layoff, and according to LeBron James, the time off was well spent. James told the Associated Press:
It was great that we were able to come out the way we did after being off eight days. We got a lot of work in. We had eight days off of not playing a basketball game but Spo got us in the gym. (We) got each other in the gym. We made each other accountable throughout the layoff and it proved tonight.
In order to finish the job it started on Tuesday, and advance to the Eastern Conference Finals for the fourth-consecutive season, Miami will have to hew closely to a game plan for victory that it partly established in Game 1. Despite the deficit, after all, the Nets are still a dangerous basketball team.
The first order of business is keeping Brooklyn off the three-point line. This is one area where a Brooklyn strength and a Miami weakness align in a way that could be devastating for the Heat.
The Nets are, in some ways, the most three-point-happy team in a league that loves doing work from the perimeter. According to NBA.com, from Jan. 1 on, Brooklyn led the Association in percentage of points that came from three-point shots. Meanwhile, according to ESPN, only five teams in the NBA yielded more triples per game than the 8.5 Miami gave up.
The Heat weren’t tremendously successful on this front on Tuesday, as the Nets hit 10-of-24 shots from behind the arc, including three each from Deron Williams and Joe Johnson.
Part two of the Heat plan to top Brooklyn is simple: Shane Battier. The Heat have to get the forgotten veteran back up and running to match up with the Nets.
As Zach Lowe and others have pointed out, the Nets are a peculiar matchup for Miami. Because they play Paul Pierce at the 4 already, when Miami moves LeBron to power forward, they won’t be forced into any hasty lineup shuffling. Miami, on the other hand, could have an issue with the Nets' “long-ball” lineup. The team is ostensibly playing small ball, but with so much size all over the floor, they can still post up guys any and everywhere—especially relative pipsqueaks like Norris Cole and Mario Chalmers.
The 6’8”, 220-pound Battier has the requisite size to bang with big guys in the post but has perimeter skill that allows Miami to play its game offensively.
Unsurprisingly, we saw more of Battier on Tuesday than we had in some time. After playing all of two minutes in the Heat’s sweep over the Charlotte Bobcats, the veteran logged 26 minutes of floor time against Brooklyn.
The final component of Miami’s “Beat Brooklyn” blueprint is hanging on to the basketball. According to ESPN, the Heat were 28th in the NBA in turnover ratio, with 14.6 percent of their possessions ending in a turnover. This is up from 13.7 percent in 2012-13, a figure that put Miami in the top half of the league.
According to Lowe, the Nets are expertly positioned to take advantage of this:
They can defend LeBron and Wade in the post without too much help, though they’ll send occasional hard double-teams toward the skinny Livingston. But when the Nets do double, they are an exquisite help-and-recover team, stocked with smart defenders who make the right reads at the right times. A lot of those defenders have long arms that muck up passing lanes; only Miami forced turnovers on a higher share of opponent possessions this season, and both of these teams can be turnover-prone.
Miami got off to a good start in this area on Tuesday, turning the ball over just 10 times.
Miami, of course, is sufficiently talented that it can lean on any one of a number of blueprints to top nearly any opponent. Such are the spoils of having the best, and most versatile, basketball player on the planet in your locker room. So this is merely one course the Heat can take to top Brooklyn. But it's a sound and smooth one and, if Tuesday is any indication, it's one they've, for the most part, decided to follow.