Coming into the offseason, it would be fair to say that the Nets were the east’s 5th best team. With limited options due to being over the salary cap through 2016, Mikhail Prokhorov and Billy King brought the Nets a stroke of magic by trading for Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Jason Terry, and signing Andrei Kirilenko with the mini midlevel exception. The move shored up the Nets’ weaknesses defensively, dramatically improved the team’s three point shooting, and has given the team an attitude, a personality, that it did not have last season.
The Heat are the champs, but the Nets come into the 2013-2014 in stride with the Pacers, Bulls, and Knicks as teams with hopes to knock the champs off their perch. Over my next four articles, I will look into how the Nets match up with all four of their rivals. Today, I start with the Heat.
The Problems the Heat Pose: Speed, Speed, Speed
Miami’s dangerous team speed will pose problems for the Nets next season, as Brooklyn will be one of the slower teams in the NBA. When Miami is at its best, it likes to make the game fast, by both shooting early in the shot clock, and providing ball pressure to make opponents rush their sets. When Miami goes on its runs, the pace of the game becomes frenetic, and that gives the Heat a unique ability to turn a close game into a rout, and do that quickly. This happened to the Nets when the Heat beat them by 30 last year in November – the Nets were only down 9 at halftime. The Nets do not want to get into an up and down game with the Heat, something which would negate the size advantage that the Nets have over Miami. And whether it’s LeBron, Wade’s speed advantage over Johnson, or Bosh’s over the Nets bigs, the Nets will have to work to contain Miami, and try to stop them from going on their patented runs when they face off. Ultimately, it is impossible over the course of a 48 minute game to stop Miami from going on smaller runs, like a 9-2 run, on occasion. But what the Nets need to avoid is allowing game changing runs against Miami, like the 30-5 run the Heat had in the Finals.
How will the Nets control the pace against the Heat. It all starts with Deron at point guard. Point guards set the tempo of the game with their choice to push the ball or walk it up, to pull up for quick threes or get the ball into the post. Deron will need to play extremely responsible, disciplined basketball against Miami, and do what he can to prevent games from becoming a track meet that the Nets would be unable to win. Instead of taking the pullup three, he needs to drive right at Chalmers, and instead of pushing the ball up the floor, he needs to work the ball inside to Brook and Garnett and allow the Nets size to work its magic. Johnson and Pierce are relatively slow wing players, and will need to keep calm amidst Miami’s pressure and take care of the ball. As will Lopez, who will need to focus on pounding Miami’s smaller front line, and refuse to be bothered by the motion around him.
Why the Nets Can Beat the Heat: Their Size, Their Wing Defense, and Deron Williams
The Miami Heat proved their status as worthy champions, but showed their weaknesses along the way. The Pacers and Spurs both pushed the Heat to a game 7 by exploiting Miami’s lack of size up front. Reggie Evans and Kris Humphries did not allow the Nets to beat Miami up inside last season, but with Garnett next to Lopez, the Nets now have the talented bigs needed to push Miami. Controlling the paint and glass against Miami can lead to easy baskets, and can hurt Miami by forcing them to matchup with a bigger lineup than they would prefer to use (they are at their best when they play small). While Lopez does struggle with the Heat’s overwhelming team speed as one of the league’s slower players, he will need to improve on the 14.5 points per game he averaged against Miami a season ago so that the Nets can leverage their size advantage against Miami next season.
The other area in which the Heat struggle is that they can be beat by opposing point guards, as LeBron often guards the opponent’s best wing and Chalmers is a weak link in Miami’s machine. While the Pacers pushed the Heat around in the playoffs last season, they struggled to manufacture offense in critical situations and Miami ultimately won game 7 rather comfortably. The Spurs, however, were a single offensive rebound, missed Ray Allen or LeBron three, or made Kawhi Leonard free throw from becoming champions. The Spurs got there because Tony Parker was able to exploit Chalmers and the Heat off the dribble, and constantly probe the lane and create opportunities for himself and teammates. The combination of Parker and an elite frontcourt was something the Heat ultimately beat, but never shook. The Heat pulled away from the Pacers in game 7, but never created that kind of separation from the Spurs.
Like Parker for the Spurs, Deron gives the Nets a dimension the Pacers do not have in an elite point guard that can create holes in a defense. Deron will need to be aggressive in attacking Chalmers next season, and forcing Chalmers’ teammates to provide help that will open up opportunities for Joe Johnson, Pierce, Garnett, and Lopez. With the talent Deron will have around him, he will have the ability to make the Heat pick its poison. Either it could allow Deron to butcher Chalmers, or it will make other players beat them: players who will be more than capable of accomplishing that task.
Another asset the Nets have against the Heat: Kirilenko. When you play the Heat, you will not stop LeBron, but you need to make him work in the hopes that he will eventually wear down, even if the wear is slight. Last season, Wallace did not fit the bill as that piece, but Kirilenko will be that player for the Nets. Kirilenko may not be listed as a starter, but he will play starter’s minutes against Miami and Nets fans should expect to see him matched up against LeBron often this coming season. While Pierce’s speed has diminished, he will help provide Kirilenko with support in guarding LeBron.
Ultimately, the Heat are an excellent team, and deserve their status of the favorites to win the east as the two time defending NBA Champions. But the Nets have the ingredients on hand to ruin their plans for a three peat. You need size to beat the Heat, and the Nets have depth along their front line. You need bigger, athletic wings to throw at LeBron to wear him down, and Kirilenko provides that for the Nets. And the Spurs showed that if you want to take Miami to the brink – not just challenge them, that you need high quality guard play to exploit the Heat along the perimeter. In Deron, the Nets have that as well.
Last season, the Nets did not have much of a chance in their three games against Miami. This season? They have all the ingredients to push Miami for their eastern conference crown.