A lot has been made of a potential rematch between the Heat and the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference finals already, but there may be no small obstacle before the showdown takes place.
Better not sleep on the Brooklyn Nets, whose 23-9 record is the best in the conference this calendar year.
The Nets have the Heat’s attention after they handed their conference rivals a 96-95 setback at AmericanAirlines Arena on Wednesday night, their third victory against the defending champions in as many tries this season. Earlier this season, the Nets beat them by one point and nine points (in overtime) at home, which suggested the Heat would have their hands full if the two were to meet in a best-of-seven series.
“We feel like we match up well against them,” said Heat nemesis Paul Pierce, who scored 22 of his game-high 29 points in the second half. “We know that when we play together and play good team defense, we can beat them now. When the Heat have gone through their playoff run, sometimes they win a lot on their fear factor. Psychologically, we know that when we come here, we can get a win.”
So the Heat are worried about the old kids on the block? Uh, not exactly.
“I’m not overly concerned,” said Dwayne Wade, who scored 22 points. “It’s stuff that we can fix. If I thought it couldn’t be fixed, then I’d be concerned. These are things that can be fixed with a little better execution.”
If the Heat aren’t about to search for the nearest bridge, then it’s because they had chances down the stretch in all three losses. This time two factors worked against them in the fourth quarter: They were guilty of seven turnovers and LeBron James did not attempt a shot let alone score a point.
“The turnovers probably as much as anything in the fourth quarter — that hamstrung us,” head coach Erik Spoelstra said. “Those empty possessions really hurt us.”
The last gasp came with 3.5 seconds left in period. After a time-out, Chris Bosh (24 points) threw an ill-advised inbounds pass to James in the lane — Ray Allen was open in the near corner — and Shaun Livingston was able to bat it away. The ball rolled harmlessly on the floor before the buzzer sounded.
“I saw LeBron and I threw it to where he was instead of where he was going,” said Bosh, whose three-point play made it a one-point game only seconds earlier.
The Heat would have had 2.5 more seconds to execute the play, but Wade was late to call a time-out after he retrieved a missed shot at the other end. Spoelstra prefers his players push the ball quickly up the court in similar situations.
“Actually, I would have liked to see what would have happened if we didn’t call a time-out,” Spoelstra said.
The Nets tried a popular strategy against James with positive results. That is, have a taller player stay in front of him, clog the middle of the court and limit drives to the basket. James scored 19 points on only 13 field goals tries, as the length of the 6-foot-7 Livingston and others posed a challenge at the perimeter.
In the first half, James took off his white Nikes and put on red ones but to no avail.
“There wasn’t a situation to get (a shot), you know?” James said. “We ran an offense where D-Wade handled the ball a lot and I was more of a facilitator. That’s just how the game was played.”
The Nets were without Kevin Garnett (back spasms), but they got a boost off the bench. Led by Mirza Teletovic (17) and Andray Blatche (11), the reserves outscored their Heat counterparts by a 36-13 margin.
“They’re a very good team,” James said. “They exploit mismatches. They’ve got a lot of guys who can beat you off the dribble, and they share the ball.”
Yet it’s nothing the Heat haven’t seen before.
Said Spoelstra, “We still feel confident about our game. We just need to put it together.”