By Jim Brighters, NBA Editor
Miami Heat: 2nd Seed, East (54-28)
Brooklyn Nets: 6th Seed, West (44-38)
(SportsNetwork.com) - The Miami Heat completed another exemplary regular season, but there was one team they weren't able to conquer, not even in four tries.
That team was the Brooklyn Nets.
The two squads begin their Eastern Conference semifinals matchup Tuesday night in South Beach and the prevailing theme at the outset is can Miami, the two- time defending champs, beat the Nets?
"We know we can beat them, but there's a difference between regular season and the playoffs. It's going to take a collective effort," Brooklyn All-Star guard Joe Johnson said.
The Nets won this season's four regular-season matchups by a combined 12 points and three of the games were decided by a single point. Brooklyn's four victories this season snapped a 13-game losing streak to the Heat.
Miami swept an injured Charlotte Bobcats team in the first round. The Heat played decently, but they've been out of action since Monday night. The long wait can work as a positive in that players can get fully healthy, but also a negative if the team loses it sharpness.
"We've been waiting around for a while," said LeBron James. "We don't have a choice, The schedule, it is what it is. Guys are definitely getting their bodies right."
James is one of those guys. He hurt his right leg in Game 4 of the Bobcats series, but indicated he's fine, going so far as to joke that the last time he felt healthy was his honeymoon over the summer.
The Nets played Sunday afternoon and barely hung on to beat the Toronto Raptors in a Game 7 at the Air Canada Centre. They flew right to South Beach to get started on preparation for this second round.
Paul Pierce blocked a Kyle Lowry attempt for the win just before the horn to preserve their season.
Pierce and Kevin Garnett, two future Hall of Famers, were brought in at a steep price to give this Nets team championship credibility. With first-year head coach Jason Kidd on the sideline, the team needed leadership. The move didn't bring the kind of expected regular-season success, but the Nets are one of eight teams that can still wear the crown.
"This was a very difficult series," Garnett said. "It tested everybody's will here. If anything, I think we grew up a bit during this series."
The Heat are in pursuit of history. When this incarnation of the Big Three was put together, James famously spoke of not one, not two. Miami can become the first team since the Los Angeles Lakers in the early part of the century to win three consecutive championships.
Miami essentially conceded the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference to the Indiana Pacers with some late-season benchings of key players. The Heat don't care about being the No. 2, or anything else for that matter now that it's playoff time.
"What you did in the regular season doesn't matter in the postseason," said James.
BACKCOURT: Dwyane Wade missed a ton of time during the regular season, probably more than head coach Erik Spoelstra planned. He had some nagging injuries, but any rest for Wade, prior to the postseason grind, is a great idea. He averaged 17.5 ppg during the Charlotte sweep, which was down a touch from the regular season. Mario Chalmers was his steady self against Charlotte, averaging 9.0 points and shooting 43 percent.
The Nets backcourt of Deron Williams and Joe Johnson has All-Star pedigree, but appeared to slip a little during the campaign. That was until the postseason hit. Johnson averaged 21.6 points against the Raptors and dominated the post against the smaller guards trying to cover him. Williams improved his play tremendously, averaging 17.1 ppg and staying aggressive throughout, at least in Brooklyn's victories. Williams tweaked his chronically bad ankle in the Toronto series, but played through it.
FRONTCOURT: What can you say about James? During the Bobcats series, he averaged 30.0 points, 8.0 rebounds, 6.0 assists and 2.3 steals. Those numbers of course led the Heat and that doesn't even get into how good a defensive player he is. James will welcome the challenge of beating Brooklyn and its list of future Hall of Famers, and James will also relish the opportunity to exact some revenge on the Nets for the regular-season beatings. Chris Bosh was decent versus Charlotte with 14.5 ppg, but he shot a ridiculous 69 percent from 3-point range. His defensive concerns will be Garnett and Andray Blatche. Bosh will need to rebound. That's Miami's weakness and it's not a strength of Bosh's. Udonis Haslem will be out there to bang, too.
Pierce was brought here to help the Nets get over the hump, especially in the fourth quarter. He essentially won Game 1 versus Toronto thanks to an unbelievable finish, then blocked Lowry's potential game-winner on Sunday. He can still score and still play great team defense. Garnett is clearly not the same KG, although at 20 minutes a game, he's not asked to be. His scoring actually improved throughout the playoffs and improved over his regular-season number. Alan Anderson was inserted into the starting lineup for Game 6, replacing Shaun Livingston. Anderson is a tough shooter and a battler. He'll probably draw Wade defensively, unless Kidd returns to his old first five.
BENCH: Miami's second unit is not one of the league's best, yet it can get massive production from yet another future Hall of Famer in Ray Allen. He was sensational last postseason, but was average against Charlotte. Chris Andersen and Norris Cole will see plenty of minutes. James Jones and Rashard Lewis may get some run as well.
Eleven Nets players averaged at least 12 minutes a game during the Raptors' series. In different games, a different bench player stepped up and provided the necessary spark. This unit is extremely impressive and Kidd could utilize any one of them on the floor in the fourth quarter, as he did in Game 5 when the Nets nearly stole one after trailing huge.
COACHING: Heat coach Erik Spoelstra has two rings and three Finals appearances. It used to be trendy to mock Spoelstra as someone who received incredible fortune in the form of James, Bosh and Allen, but Spoelstra isn't afraid to make difficult choices. Players you expect to get significant minutes don't, and players you don't expect to see, like a Jones, pay dividends. He's got a great feel for his group.
Jason Kidd was criticized heavily at the beginning of the season when the Nets struggled. He's still a first-year head coach, but he already got his team past the first round and won a Game 7 on the road. Kidd employs a deep rotation, but relies on his veteran core of Williams/Johnson/Pierce/Garnett when things get close. He won a championship as a player, so he knows what it takes to prevail on this stage.
PREDICTION: Long layoffs can be tricky and the Heat players and Spoelstra acknowledged as much. But this group could use the rest. James and Wade were both dinged up and when a team reaches the Finals three consecutive years, a lot of mileage piles up on those legs.
The Heat are primed for another run and they will tire of answering questions about Brooklyn's season sweep. Time away helped them heal.
SPORTS NETWORK PREDICTION: HEAT in FIVE
05/05 09:59:17 ET