The first round of the 2013-14 NBA Playoffs is finally in the books, and boy was it a doozy. With a record-setting five series heading to the seventh game, it was a week and a half for the ages. If you missed out, you’ve seriously got to reassess your priorities and find someone else to feed that baby.
In the end, nearly every top seeded team hung on at home and held off the bevvy of possible upsets that NBA fans were pining for, but the #6 Nets were able to topple the #3 Raptors on a last second block by Paul Pierce when Kyle Lowry drove the lane to attempt the buzzer-beating game winner.
Here’s what Pierce had to say about his clutch, season-saving play: “I got my hand on the ball. Game over.”
That’s right. Game-set-match. Bring on Miami.
But the series win was more of a pseudo upset than a proper David-versus-Goliath victory. After an atrocious start, Brooklyn wound up the season trailing their division rivals by just four games, and over the final few months of the campaign the Nets ranked near the top of the league.
For much of the season, the fruits of the blockbuster Garnett/Pierce trade were stuck firmly up in the branches, but now that the Nets have advanced into the second round we’ve got to start wondering how far this old fogey championship duo can take this team.
But first, a look forward for the Raptors.
Elimination from the playoffs is always disappointing, especially when your franchise has only won one series in its entire nineteen-year existence (2001 vs. New York Knicks). But, the future is looking awfully bright for these Toronto Raptors.
Toronto finished the regular season with their all-time best record at (48-34). They also won just their second ever division crown. Even the Nets players spouted nothing but praise for the Raptors during post-game interviews, saying that this team is poised to go deep into the playoffs “in the very near future.”
The Raptors are led by two rising stars in the backcourt. All-Star DeMar DeRozan led the team with 23.9 points per game in the playoffs and Kyle Lowry was close behind with 21.1. Forward Terrence Ross is a young player showing a great deal of promise (and I’m not just talking about monster dunks).
When it was time for the chips to fall, Brooklyn’s playoff experience was just enough to push them over the top. But come this stage next year, the Raptors will have one hotly contested wild playoff series under their belt. “Close but not cigar” won’t do anything to dull today’s pain, but playoff experience matters and now they’ve got it.
Toronto didn’t get a hell of a lot of respect this year after racking up the third best record in the East, but should they find similar success in 2014-15, there’ll be a lot more media attention paid to the basketball team hailing from the Big Smoke.
4 and 0 against the defending champs.
Now that we’ve reached the Conference Semi-Finals, it’s a safe presumption to say that any of the remaining eight teams have got a legitimate shot at winning the title. We hear the “it’s a new season” cliché year after year, but it’s totally true … with the exception of enjoying home court advantage, at this point what you did during the regular season means diddly-squat.
Nevertheless, we’ve got to wonder if anything can be gleaned from the fact that in four attempts, Miami was unable to beat Brooklyn even once.
Kevin Garnett dismissed any connection between his team’s regular season success against the Heat and how they might fare in the upcoming series. But come on, if there’s any team out there who might just have the Heat’s number, is it all that great of a stretch to look to the club that knocked off the defending champs on four different occasions?
How did they do it?
The Nets found continued success against the Heat by employing strong defense, hustling to the boards, and controlling the game tempo to force Miami to play at a speed that they were comfortable with. Regulating the pace and employing a time of possession-based strategy allowed the Nets to win all four games while scoring right around their season average, well under 100 points per night.
Over the course of their four head-to-head match-ups, Brooklyn held Miami to just 94.3 points defensively, a full eight points under the team’s 102.2 season scoring average. They outrebounded the Heat by a whopping 6.3 boards per night.
On offense, Brooklyn coach Jason Kidd created defensive fits for Miami by moving Paul Pierce over to small forward, where the Heat don’t have a player who matches up well quickness-wise with Pierce. He averaged 21.3 against the Heat during the regular season and look for the Nets to rely heavily on a similar output from the veteran if they hope to continue their success and prevent LeBron from achieving the Three-Peat.
Additionally, Joe Johnson found scoring success in this altered line-up, knocking down 19.5 a night against the Heat.
So sure, all four of these games are safely stored into the memory bank, but regardless of what coaches and players say to the media, the Heat would rather be facing the Raptors and the Nets are more confident heading up against Miami’s “Big Three” than any other team in the East.
The recipe for an upset.
Even without injured center Brook Lopez, the Nets have an abundance of size in Garnett, Blatche and Mason Plumlee. If Brooklyn can control the paint and outrebound the Heat by 20% once again, this will put a lot of pressure on Miami’s shooters to make their shots on the first go. The modern game has seen a shift to more jump shots and less post-ups, but a properly executed game plan down low still remains a very successful model for controlling a slow-paced game. The Nets have already beaten the Heat four times with this old-school approach and so until proven otherwise, there’s no reason to fix what ain’t broken.
For obvious reason Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett garner much of the spotlight when compared to the rest of the Nets roster, but the team’s also got an All-Star in the back court. Point guard Deron Williams has had an up-and-down season due to injuries, but at times he has been absolutely brilliant.
Aside from struggling with rebounds, Miami’s other defensive weakness is working against super quick point guards. If Williams presses the issue and attacks the basket, he could open up a good number of clear looks for his teammates. Basketball’s always an in-and-out sort of game, but Brooklyn truly does have the right line-up to best exploit Miami’s soft spots.
And let’s not forget that for as good as Williams is from the point, when the Nets spread the court with Pierce and Joe Johnson, they’re a threat to drive to the hole from every angle on the court.
Much of the Nets’ defensive approach goes back to what they do on offense. By slowing the pace and grinding down the clock, they’ll limit the number of times the rock gets into LeBron James’ hands. When Miami does have the ball, they’ll need to focus less on stopping the unstoppable King James and more on limiting Dwayne Wade, whose production is more erratic, and even more so on preventing role players from the “other 12” from stepping up and contributing.
The Heat rely on their lesser-involved players to fill in the gaps off the bench, but who contributes on any given night is often a grab bag. For as great as Miami’s Big Three are, five is always greater than three, and forcing James, Bosh, and Wade to carry 100% of the scoring is a great recipe for knocking off Miami.
Been there, done that.
With Miami coming off two straight championship seasons, there’s no question that the Heat maintain the edge in terms of playoff experience, but the Nets have more than enough players accustomed to the pressure of post-season play.
At the end of the day, playoff experience is what allows you to not only elevate your game when it matters most, but to have the confidence in your style of play to stick to the game plan and not rush your shots because of butterflies.
Playoff experience gives players the confidence to know that they need not be intimidated by anybody, not even the World Champs. The Brooklyn Nets are not scared of the Miami Heat; on the contrary, they are looking forward to the challenge.
“When you play against the best, as a competitor, you want those moments,” said Pierce. “If you look at all the great competitors in this league, they want to play against the other best, to see where they are, to see how they measure up throughout history. When you play against the best like LeBron, it brings out the best in I think everyone. I think that’s in any sport, when you’re a great competitor. And I consider myself a great competitor, who wants to be in those moments, who wants to play against who people call the best.”
Fasten your seatbelts basketball fans, this Heat-Nets series has all the components to become an instant classic. The betting man will probably put his money on Miami, but with Indiana struggling to get by Atlanta, those who wish to see a new team represent the East in the Finals might want to put on their Brooklyn Nets rally caps.
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