The NBA’s Greatest First Round Ever has ended, which is a bit of a shame, but the idea that half the participants in the Greatest First Round Ever are still active should keep you keen on taking in the second round of the 2014 NBA playoffs. This is where the minds behind Ball Don’t Lie prepare you for what you’re about to see.
Kelly Dwyer’s Old Grey Whistle Test
From October until April, we bleat on and on about the importance of the regular season, how these games genuinely do mean so much, how there is a litany of things we can learn from while taking in contests pitched in the middle of the 82-game season, pointing to playoff history for proof of as much. How you would have known the 2007 Warriors stood a puncher’s chance against Dallas had you just watched Golden State play the Mavs in the previous regular seasons, maaaaan, and how you would have called Memphis over San Antonio in 2011 had you just bothered to tune in during February, maaaan.
Well, somewhat famously, the Nets swept the two-time defending champion Miami Heat in the regular season this year. The Nets may have been built for the playoffs, with that veteran core and a nearly $200 million coach/player/luxury tax-enhanced payroll, but somehow in the midst of an up-and-down regular season, the squad still managed to down the Heat four times in four tries. Miami didn’t exactly break any won/loss records in 2013-14, but four of the team’s 28 losses coming to one team? The team they’ll be taking on in the second round? That can’t be dismissed … can it?
Yeah, it probably can be. Nearly as famously, the Heat lost three of those games by a total of three whole points, and it lost the other game in double overtime. These were coin flip games, and while the Nets are to be credited for pulling each of them out – with a pair of them placed during the dregs of Brooklyn’s early season struggles – things could have just as easily swung to Miami’s side with just a bounce or two gone in the champs’ direction.
Now, the reverse could happen to Brooklyn during this second-round series. The Nets could take the oh-fer column against a Heat team that is nearly a week removed from sweeping the Charlotte Bobcats, losing each game by a too-close score. The Nets are packed with scorers who can create good looks for both themselves and teammates down the stretch of games, but the defensive presence of LeBron James looms large – he can force Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce, or Deron Williams into desperate 20-footers with the clock ticking down. These are shots that all three can and have made late in important games, but they aren’t ideal.
The idea of a flipped switch is real, and even though anyone watching those four regular-season contests (“maaaaan”) will tell you the Heat were giving their all in defeat, things truly are different once May hits. The ability to unleash a focused LeBron for an ungodly amount of minutes on both ends, Brooklyn’s worrying overreliance on forcing turnovers and hoping to keep things close in the fourth, and the idea the Heat get to clean the slate at the outset of every series has to worry a Nets team that did well to take a Game 7 in Toronto on Sunday afternoon.
Then there’s Dwyane Wade. The man has played just eight games in six weeks. The man will have a day off and little travel between each of these games. The man could be switched over to Shaun Livingston or Alan Anderson, roaming all along, while LeBron leaves it all out there against Johnson and/or Pierce. Ray Allen could continue to be relatively average from long range, Shane Battier could prove to be a millstone offensively while guarding Brooklyn’s small lineup, and the Heat’s depth may look tiny in the face of what has developed into a rather good Nets bench.
It doesn’t matter. The Heat are a top-heavy team, and in spite of various May and June theatrics from some of its bit players over the past two years, they’ll continue to work as such. This is going to have to be a LeBron-dominant series, he’ll be forced to try to create transition flourishes against a Nets team that goes for an offensive rebound about twice per month, and he’ll be charged with guarding whoever is hottest down the stretch of what figure to be close games.
That’s sort of what LeBron does, though. Fatigue may set in later during this postseason, or in an offseason that would come on the heels of The Decision, a Finals trip, a lockout, a tough title in a shortened year, the Olympics, another title, and another long year, but for now LeBron James should be fresh as a daisy.
And the Nets are pressed and dried flowers, tucked into a well-worn scrapbook at their Nana’s house. They’ll always have the regular season to look fondly upon, at least.
Prediction: Heat in 6.
Dan Devine's One Big Question
Every postseason matchup has its own unique set of variables for each team, and prognosticator, to attempt to solve. Here's one that BDL's Dan Devine has been mulling over.
Which flavor of small-ball will win out?
As we discussed in our preview of their first-round series, Brook Lopez's season-ending foot injury forced the Brooklyn Nets to completely change their lineup, rotations and style of play. With head coach Jason Kidd electing to move several key veterans up a spot -- Kevin Garnett from power forward to center, Paul Pierce from small forward to power forward, Joe Johnson from shooting guard to small forward -- and insert long-armed mismatch artist Shaun Livingston into the starting lineup as a (non-shooting) shooting guard alongside Deron Williams, Brooklyn blossomed.
What was once conventional became confounding for opponents. Before the shift, the Nets were a squad full of big-name talents who didn't quite fit together, stumbling to find their footing en route to a 10-21 start. Afterward, they became a versatile crew capable of attacking opponents in multiple ways on offense and shifting seamlessly between assignments on defense. They use length, savvy and well-timed aggression to stifle opposing offenses and create turnovers, then exploit their size to create mismatches in the post, their court vision to find open teammates, and their precision passing to swing the ball in search of quality looks.
It's not a simple one-to-one analogue, of course. The Nets don't have a single dominant force on the order of LeBron James, for one thing, and their brand of turnover-causing defense doesn't rely as heavily on vise-grip on-ball traps backed up by light-speed rotations that turn four-on-three opportunities for the offense into run-out dunks for the D. But the general ideas that made Brooklyn threatening are ostensibly the same ones that turned the Heat into more than the sum of their summer-of-2010 parts, and into two-time defending NBA champions, which ought to make it awful fun to watch these funhouse-mirror images of one another square off for the next couple of weeks.
The Nets' ability to post up at every position with players who excel at either scoring against one-on-one defenders or passing over the top of a collapsing double makes defending them nightmarish, even for the Heat. After being all but mothballed for most of the final month of the season and receiving just two minutes of playing time in the Heat's first-round sweep of the Charlotte Bobcats, career defensive specialist Shane Battier figures to play a more significant role in this series -- especially if Miami coach Erik Spoelstra chooses (or is forced) to have James defend Johnson rather than Pierce.
The longtime Atlanta Hawks star torched the Toronto Raptors to the tune of 21.6 points per game on 51.8 percent shooting and a 39.1 percent mark from beyond the arc, while also dishing just under four combined assists and "secondary assists" per game facilitating out of the post. The 6-foot-8 Johnson was nearly as successful against Miami this year, averaged 19.5 points on 51.7 percent shooting and a blistering 44.4 percent mark from long distance in Brooklyn's regular-season sweep of the Heat, and he feasted when checked by smaller defenders like Dwyane Wade, Ray Allen and Roger Mason Jr. He was somewhat less successful, however, when James picked him up, shooting 44 percent from the floor and going 1 for 5 from 3-point land, according to NBA.com's SportVU tracking data.
Three seasons of guarding opposing fours have worn down Battier, and he hasn't exactly locked down "The Truth" in the past -- Pierce's shooting percentage against Battier's teams has been worse when Shane's on the floor in three of the past six seasons and better in two (they didn't face one another in 2008-09), according to NBA.com's media stats site. But the Heat have defended Brooklyn better with Battier on the floor this season -- as NBA.com's John Schuhmann notes, they've allowed 92.3 points per 100 possession in Battier minutes and 109.5 points-per-100 when he sits, which is essentially the difference between being the league's best and worst D -- and he provides another option capable of contesting Pierce on the perimeter and holding his ground if the action goes inside. Or, as CBSSports.com's Matt Moore suggests, Spoelstra could go with Battier on Johnson and keep James on Pierce, lest LeBron's longtime nemesis get going on his own; Pierce, after all, averaged 21.3 points on 55.3 percent shooting against Miami this season.
On the other side of the ball, Miami will have to do a better job of taking care of the ball against a Nets defense that, as Couper Moorhead of Heat.com details, plays a conservative pick-and-roll scheme but still creates pressure with timely interruptions and active hands. The Heat coughed it up on 16.3 percent of their possessions against the Nets this season, equivalent to the league's second-worst full-season mark (owned by the Houston Rockets) and up from their season average of 15.8 percent. They also allowed just over one more point per game off turnovers against Brooklyn than they did against the league at large, which doesn't sound like an especially big deal … until you remember that three of the four meetings between these two teams were decided by one point, and that the fourth went into double overtime.
Brooklyn's four-game regular-season sweep might not amount to much come Tuesday, as ESPN Insider Tom Haberstroh writes, but it does suggest the margins in this series matter, and that on a play-to-play, game-to-game basis, they're probably going to be small. Considering the stylistic predilections of the teams involved, that seems fitting, doesn't it?
Prediction: Heat in 6.
Eric Freeman’s Guide to Playoff Watchability
Over the next two months, basketball fans will hear all manner of insights into key matchups, X-factors and other series-deciding phenomena. For most people, though, watching so much basketball is a luxury or bizarre form of punishment, not a fact of life. These brave souls must know one thing: Is this game between 10 men in pajamas worth the time? Eric Freeman’s Guide to Playoff Watchability attempts to answer this difficult question.
At this point, in this particular incarnation of the Eastern Conference, it seems quite difficult to challenge the Miami Heat. The Indiana Pacers, presumed to be their best competition, are now a shambles. The rest of the conference did little to inspire confidence over the course of the season. Who, exactly, is supposed to play with LeBron James?
Among this group, the Nets would appear to have the best chance. They swept the Heat in four very competitive games and are made up almost exclusively of veterans with experience. In theory, they should not perform worse in this situation. In practice, it’s likely Miami didn’t perform to its full capacity in those games, as could be said of the 82-game schedule. They’re a different beast in the offseason.
But perception matters, which means that a series win for Miami would at least register as improvement, almost like the basketball version of an action hero’s gearing-up montage. The Nets feature villains from the Heat’s past, several other foes, and the sort of upstart big-name franchise status that solidifies them as worthy adversaries. As long as they win a few games and make the series a bit competitive, there’s a narrative here to carry viewers through to a satisfying conclusion. The basketball is a bonus.
Rating: 7 LeBron-Celtics Flashbacks Out of 10
Prediction: Heat in 6.