Most of the interesting chatter entering Wednesday night’s matchup between the Miami Heat and Brooklyn Nets revolved around the success the Nets had encountered when facing the two-time defending champions this season. Two meetings, two hard-fought wins for coach Jason Kidd’s side.
And yet, despite the previous good times, there was still more Brooklyn needed to accomplish against this group that had already established NBA immortality. Because at the end of the day, those wins were back in the downtown section of their New York City borough. With only a little over a month remaining in the regular season, the Nets desperately desired to add one in South Florida to their resume.
That would make it the real deal. And, in turn, it would open the eyes of both the Nets and the rest of the league that this squad can be a real, dangerous deal come the postseason. One that would have undergone an evolution so remarkable, so day and night, that it would demonstrate a legitimate potential to dethrone Miami in a best of seven confrontation.
After squeaking out a 96-95 thriller over LeBron James and company, there was no doubt remaining.
Winning the game, alone, wasn’t what did the trick, but rather the balanced performance it took to come out on top that did.
Paul Pierce awakened and flat-out astounded, scoring 29 points on 9-of-12 shooting from the field. No one, not even the Nets themselves, expect that sort of rejuvenation to be the norm in any sort of playoff series for Pierce, but one or two nights like that from the future Hall of Famer can be the difference in one, especially when surrounded by stars like Deron Williams and Joe Johnson, who can also will the team to victory with hot shooting nights of their own.
But the relentless help Pierce received from his friends spoke even louder. No, not the obvious ones, i.e. Johnson and Williams, who combined for just 14 points total on the night, but guys like Shaun Livingston, who made the game-deciding play by deflecting an inbound with 3.5 seconds remaining that caused time to expire, Mirza Teletovic and Andray Blatche.
With 13 points from Livingston, 11 from Blatche and a flashy 17 added by Teletovic, Brooklyn’s secondary weapons exhibited pure fearlessness against the Big Bad Wolf that is Miami at its best. In a playoff series, it’s players like these who can almost single-handedly, surprisingly, steal games. If they’re playing that confidently now, they’ll have even more assurance to play as aggressively under brighter lights.
When it was all said and done, however, the outcome of this battle came down to probably the most basic thing: Defense. The Nets rotated and helped each other as well as a team possibly could against a Heat unit that plays with blazing speed, as they blocked seven total shots and added another 11 steals to the stat sheet as well.
It was no fluke either. Miami’s 95 points essentially match what the Nets have been allowing their opponents on average over the last 32 games. With that kind of defensive cohesiveness and efficiency, they would give themselves an excellent chance against the Heat in a series.
A chance that could result in something truly extraordinary.