It’s the Eastern Conference second-round playoff matchup most NBA fans outside of Toronto wanted to see.
The two-time defending champion Miami Heat will begin their best-of-7 conference semifinal series against the Brooklyn Nets on Tuesday night at AmericanAirlines Arena.
The Nets won all four closely contested meetings with the Heat this season. Brooklyn escaped with three one-point victories, with the fourth triumph being in double overtime.
Both teams have been insisting those games don’t matter, and they’re right. The regular season is not the playoffs, and each team endured injuries that resulted in unsettled lineups much of the year.
Brooklyn’s success, however, likely means it will take the floor against Miami with a confidence many other teams would not have.
Throw in a rivalry born in Boston and Cleveland between LeBron James and Brooklyn stars Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, and you have a series seemingly destined to go six or seven games while producing close games, thrilling moments and, perhaps, some fireworks.
”They’re a talented team. They’re a veteran team,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said Monday. ”They’ve been in these situations, in playoff games just like our guys. They have two-way players. It’s all about embracing that competition right now.”
Nets 101, Heat 100 (Nov. 1 at Brooklyn)
The Nets ended a 13-game losing streak against Miami. LeBron James scored 26 points and Dwyane Wade had 21 for the Heat, who trailed by 11 points entering the fourth quarter. Paul Pierce and Joe Johnson scored 19 points each for Brooklyn.
Nets 104, Heat 95, 2OT (Jan. 10 at Brooklyn)
LeBron James fouled out late in the first overtime of this one. Joe Johnson scored 32 points and Shaun Livingston (19 points, 11 rebounds and five assists) helped Brooklyn dominate the second overtime. Ray Allen shot 2-of-14 in place of Wade, who rested his sore knees.
Nets 96, Heat 95 (March 12 at Miami)
Chris Bosh scored 24 points, Wade scored 22 and James finished with 19 for the Heat, who allowed 22 points off turnovers. Pierce scored 17 of his 29 points in the third quarter and delivered two crucial baskets late. Livingston created a turnover on the game’s final play.
Nets 88, Heat 87 (April 8 at Miami)
Mason Plumlee blocked James’ dunk attempt at the rim with two seconds left. The Heat wanted a foul called, but it didn’t happen. James had 29 points, 10 rebounds and six assists. Miami was without Wade (hamstring) and Udonis Haslem (stomach virus). Garnett did not play for the second straight meeting.
LeBron James (27.1 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 6.4 apg) and Chris Bosh (16.2 ppg, 6.6 rpg) have been joined in recent weeks by Udonis Haslem (3.8 ppg, 3.8 rpg). But Rashard Lewis (4.5 ppg) or Shane Battier (4.1 ppg) could start if Brooklyn goes small, as expected.
The Nets lost center Brooke Lopez to a foot injury in January. Their smaller playoff lineup has included Kevin Garnett (6.5 ppg, 6.6 rpg) at center, Paul Pierce (13.5 ppg, 4.6 rpg) at power forward and Joe Johnson (15.8 ppg), who averaged 21.6 points against Toronto in the first round.
James and Pierce likely will oppose each other often.
”I’ve always wanted to compete against the best in the postseason and I’ve always looked at Paul as one of the better guys we have in our league,” James said. ”He’s had the upper edge on me, I’ve had the upper edge on him. This is another opportunity to see who gets the upper edge.”
The Nets backcourt will consist of point guard Deron Williams (14,3 ppg, 6.1 apg) and likely Alan Anderson (7.2 ppg) or Shaun Livingston (8.3 ppg). Miami will counter with Mario Chalmers (9.8 ppg, 4.9 apg) and Dwyane Wade (19.0 ppg., 4.7 apg).
Wade, who missed two of the regular-season meetings, is as healthy as he has been all season.
”It doesn’t guarantee us anything at all,” Wade said of his presence. ”This is a savvy team. They put it together, they figured out their game, they figured out how to win together.”
Guard Ray Allen (9.6 ppg) and forward/center Chris ”Birdman” Andersen (6.6 ppg, 5.3 rpg) head the Heat’s reserve unit, with Norris Cole (6.4 ppg) spelling Chalmers. Don’t be surprised to see more of Battier, who played just two minutes vs. the Bobcats. Guard Toney Douglas (4.2 ppg) also could see time if Chalmers and/or Cole struggle. Sharpshooter James Jones (4.9 ppg) took Battier’s minutes by playing in each first-round game.
Besides bringing Anderson or Livingston off the bench, the Nets will likely call on center/power forward Mason Plumlee (7.4 ppg, 4.4 apg), center Andray Blatche (11.3 ppg, 5.3 rpg), power forward Mirza Teletovic (8.6 ppg), small forward Andrei Kirilenko (5.0 ppg) and shooting guard Marcus Thornton (12.3 ppg).
”We can go whatever way we need to go,” Spoelstra said. ”We’ll go as deep into our rotation as we need to.”
— The cumulative score between the Heat and Nets this season: Brooklyn 389, Miami 377.
— Miami is 38-12 this season when Chris Bosh scores at least 15 points, 19-14 when he does not.
— The Heat averaged just eight fast-break points against Brooklyn this season.
”In the playoffs, you’re probably not going to be playing in the 120s,” Spoelstra said. ”But we need to be able to force some defensive actions that get us out in the open court. Speed, pace, spacing — that’s all critical for us.”
— The Heat averaged 15 turnovers against Brooklyn this season.
”Turnovers were our biggest problem throughout the whole season, including when we played Brooklyn,” James said. ”We turned the ball over too much during the regular season and it frustrated all of us. I think we did a great job in the first round (against Charlotte) understanding how important every possession is.”
There are reasons the Nets played the Heat tough during the season. Brooklyn likes to grind down the clock in the half court, and it plays quality defense — something enhanced by the veteran mettle of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce.
Still, if Dwyane Wade remains healthy, well-rested Miami should prevail in six or seven games.