This article was originally drafted prior to Game 1 of the Heat vs. Nets series, and while I’ve changed some of the article to address what we saw on Tuesday night, I’ve also stayed true to my initial thinking as to how the Nets can beat the Heat in a seven game series. Tuesday’s Game 1 didn’t change my conclusion, but it did show how difficult this series will be for the Nets to win.
Nets fans are probably exasperated again after having felt some euphoria during the day or two after the Nets beat the Raptors. Game 1's contest contained all kinds of ominous signs for the Nets. One, the Heat looked very balanced on offense, and didn't even need a big night from LeBron James or Dwyane Wade to win. Two, the Nets looked very bad in the frontcourt. Kevin Garnett was not a factor, and both Andray Blatche and Mason Plumlee looked overmatched defensively and offensively. Third, the Nets defense was non-existent - they cant win by allowing the Heat to shoot almost 57% from the field as a team. The Nets ranked 18th in defensive team efficiency per numberFire's rankings, and that same defense must improve to win this series.
Now, I’m not trying to say that all hope is lost - this was always going to be a physically and mentally demanding series. You can’t forget that the Heat are two-time defending NBA champions who happen to have the best player on the planet, and are favored - by far - to win this series. However, they're also the same team that lost four times to the Nets during the regular season. The question is how do you reconcile what happened during the regular season with what happened in Game 1?
Normally, if a team is facing someone that they swept during the regular season, the experts will pick the regular season victor to win the playoff series. The Nets/Heat series marks the 26th time that teams will meet in a best-of-seven series after one team went 4-0 or better against that opponent during the regular season. The losing regular season team has never won any of the prior 25 playoff series.
I love that statistic, but it doesn’t explain how the Nets can win this series. We should, however, be able to derive some clues and maybe formulate a blueprint for success from the regular season games, which can help lead the Nets to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Who has been instrumental in beating the Heat?
The most interesting statistic that I found when reviewing the regular season match-ups is that only four Nets’ players played in all four games. They were Alan Anderson, Joe Johnson, Shaun Livingston and Paul Pierce. When you compare each player’s regular season statistics against their statistics for the four games against the Heat, it's Johnson and Pierce who really jump off the page.
Both players shot the ball at a very high level - 51.7% for Johnson and 55.3% for Pierce. And the high shooting percentages led to higher points per game averages - Johnson was four points above his regular season average and Pierce was six points above his average. Johnson was also the key player in the series against the Raptors, averaging 21.9 points per game while shooting 52.3% from the field over seven games. Pierce, on the other hand, was solid at 13.4 points per game while shooting 46.5% from the field, but more will be needed from him against the Heat.
You can imagine (and we’ve seen) that the Heat will have James, Wade and Shane Battier or some combination of those three guarding Johnson and Pierce for this entire series, which is going to make it difficult for both of them. But All-Star caliber players like Johnson and Pierce tend to find ways to beat the best defenses.
Another player that had above average games against the Heat this year was Garnett. I think it’s fair to say that all NBA fans were underwhelmed by his performance this year as a whole – 6.5 points and 6.6 rebounds per game. However, he turned it up a bit against the Heat over three games averaging 9.0 points, 8.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game. If Johnson, Pierce and Garnett can continue to play at a higher level, the Nets will have a legitimate chance to take this series. In Game 1, for example, the Nets received a decent game from Johnson, but Pierce and Garnett were missing in action.
Who is Deron Williams?
Is Deron Williams washed up at this point because of recurring injuries, or can he still find the top five point guard form that he seemed to possess just 2-3 years ago? When facing the Heat this year, he's looked relatively awful. Through three games, he averaged 7.3 points, 7.3 assists and 4.3 rebounds per game. Plus, he's been shooting a horrible percentage during those games, 33.3% from the field and 43% from the free throw line.
On Tuesday, he looked a little bit better, scoring 17 points, 3 rebounds and 3 assists. Unfortunately that's not going to be enough. Williams plays a position that the Nets must dominate. No offense to Norris Cole and Mario Chalmers, but they’re not in Williams’ league or they shouldn’t be anyway.
To a lesser extent, Livingston should also be able to make a difference in this series. He’s bigger and more athletic than either of the Heat point guards, and he's at least bigger than Wade. Livingston needs to play his A game night to night as well.
Can the Nets win?
As a general matter, the Nets look a lot like a college team when you watch them because of their ridiculously large rotation. They legitimately rotate 11 guys every game. However, when it’s crunch time (or what I like to call Paul Pierce time) the Nets are going to have to find a core group that can deliver.
This group obviously includes Joe Johnson, who had a tremendous first-round series and also played extremely well against the Heat this year. Paul Pierce can still bring the hammer when he needs to and will have to replicate his regular season numbers for the Nets to have a chance to win. In addition, some combination of Livingston and Deron Williams is going to have to win the point guard position each night.
Finally, the last key item for the Nets is to win the frontcourt battles. Garnett, Blatche and Plumlee need to destroy the interior of the Heat. They must control the matchups with Udonis Haslem, Battier, Chris Bosh and Chris Andersen. If the Nets can win the front court battle and the point guard battle, they will have a very good chance to win this series. None of the foregoing happened in game one.