Miami Heat Index: Brooklyn Nets

Shabazz Napier eyes lesson in rough debut

July, 5, 2014
Jul 5
Wallace By Michael Wallace
 Shabazz Napier Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty ImagesHeat point guard Shabazz Napier's debut was marred by eight turnovers and 3-for-15 shooting.

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Shabazz Napier turned the ball over on his first possession and launched an airball on one of his final shots during his first game as an NBA point guard.

Those kind of miscues can only mean one thing: The Miami Heat’s first-round draft pick is right on track in the early stages of his transition to the league. Struggling in a summer league debut has become a rite of passage for point guards getting their first taste of NBA action.

Napier, the NCAA tournament’s Most Outstanding Player who had LeBron James’ stamp of approval when he was drafted in the first round last month, missed his first 10 shots and had eight turnovers Saturday in Miami’s 85-77 loss to the Boston Celtics at the Orlando Pro Summer League.

But a productive spurt in the fourth quarter during a rally that fell short left Napier embracing the growing pains and eager to quickly adjust in time for his next summer league test Sunday.

“I definitely needed this one to understand the game much better,” Napier said of Saturday’s performance. “It’s a big adjustment. I’m unable to do a lot of things I was on the college level. I’ve got to find the adjustments on how to do those things. I’ve still got the college game coming in. We’re learning on the fly, and we’re going to make big mistakes. This is a different game.”

But the humbling start makes Napier no different than plenty of other point guards who stumbled along their initial steps into the league. This time a year ago, Michael Carter-Williams shot 27 percent from the field in Orlando, had games with nine and eight turnovers, respectively, and he never found a rhythm despite putting up solid overall scoring numbers.

The Sixers point guard ended up being named NBA Rookie of the Year last season.

There are similar stories of early struggles dating back to Derrick Rose’s NBA summer league opening act in 2008. But perhaps the most impressive aspect of Napier’s approach to this process was revealed after Saturday’s game when he was asked how much he either watched or knew about the early growing pains some top college point guards had in their initial week of summer schooling.

Napier, who never shied away from controversial statements during his time at UConn about the NCAA’s governing guidelines, offered a dish better than either of the two he had in Saturday’s game.

“I didn’t watch it at all,” Napier said of tracking previous summer league seasons. “I never had NBA TV, especially at school. If a lot of point guards do this, then I guess it’s a remedy. But it’s a big learning curve for all of us. So you’ve got to find a way. I will as soon as I continue to play.”

Repetition is certain to be a remedy, too.

Napier was targeted by the Heat for several reasons. Chief among them was that LeBron likes him and considered the shifty, sharp-shooting, two-time NCAA champion as the best point guard in the draft. Another reason was that Napier plays a position of potential need for the Heat, who saw 14 of the 15 players on last season’s roster become free agents this summer.

It’s made for a hectic and desperate month of July already, with LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh still yet to publicly commit to re-signing with the Heat since entering free agency last week. There has been a steady dose of conflicting reports about the intentions of the Heat’s Big Three, from some outlets speculating that all three players are likely to return, to others reporting that LeBron and Bosh are now apparently open to exploring how they might fit with other teams.

Meanwhile, Heat president Pat Riley and coach Erik Spoelstra have been traveling the country the past few days meeting with potential free-agent targets, including Luol Deng and Pau Gasol, in an effort to retool the roster in anticipation of LeBron, Wade and Bosh returning.

Amid that backdrop, the Heat are hoping to develop and prepare a handful of prospects on the summer league team who might be able to contribute to next season’s roster. In addition to Napier, Miami is hopeful that swingman James Ennis, a second-round pick last season, and holdover center Justin Hamilton can add a “layer of youth” to the team Riley mentioned was needed moving forward.

Ennis led the Heat with 18 points and eight rebounds, showing both the athleticism around the rim and the shooting distance from 3-point range Miami needs to replace aging veterans from last season’s team that was overrun by San Antonio in five games during the NBA Finals. Hamilton missed nine of 15 shots, but he had 13 points and nine rebounds Saturday against Boston’s young prospects.

Heat assistant Dan Craig, who is coaching the summer league team, said Napier’s uneven play was more a result of his inability to adjust to the pace of the NBA game -– even at the scaled-down summer level.

“At times, I thought he sped himself up,” Craig said. “That’s one thing we’ve been talking about. Slow down, let the defense make the mistake. As he settled in, I think he did a good job of adjusting. Obviously, we’re still learning each other. If he makes a mistake, he goes on to the next play. I think he got in trouble more than they got him in trouble. And that’s just about slowing down.”

Among the dozens of former players, league executives and team scouts who watched Napier in action at the Orlando Magic’s practice facility was someone who knows quite a bit about a point guard’s transition from leading a team to an NCAA title to getting prepared in a hurry for the NBA.

Isiah Thomas, who guided Indiana to a championship in 1981 and then entered the draft three months later, smiled and nodded his approval as he spoke with Saturday about Napier.

“The thing I like about him most is that he competes. And not only does he compete, he’s smart and has a great fundamental base you can build from,” Thomas said. “He understands offensive concepts and defensive concepts. I’m not concerned about what his field goal percentage was today, or any of that.”

Thomas, a Hall of Fame point guard who won two championships with the Detroit Pistons, said Napier has the intangibles and instincts necessary to work through many of the initial adjustments required to be an impact point guard in the NBA. Thomas pointed to a stretch in the fourth quarter, when Napier made three straight shots, got a steal and sparked a comeback in a key stage of the game.

“They had a stretch there when he really got it going,” said Thomas, now an analyst for NBA TV. “The thing that is impressive is that he can have those type of bursts in a game, when he can hit a couple of shots, get a couple of steals and change the whole momentum of the game. It didn’t matter to him what he was shooting before that moment. He’s able to grasp that, and that’s a big thing at this level.”

Ennis, who played for the Heat’s summer league team last year, said he spoke with Napier about not allowing a slow start or bad game to linger. The week is far too short for any of that.

“I told him, ‘This is your first time here. Last year, I was very nervous,’” Ennis said. “I know he got drafted in first round, so a lot of people expect a lot of him. Next game, he’ll be better. Just get the jitters out.”

That process for Napier started with the first play of the game. He brought the ball up in transition and tossed a lazy pass across the court and knew it was a mistake the moment it left his hand. The turnover led to a Celtics fast break.

“I passed it, and I didn’t know I threw a loose pass,” Napier said. “I thought I threw a regular pass. That’s one of the things I’ve got to learn. Throw a pass that has a chance of getting there. As soon as I threw it, I said, ‘There it is, get back on defense.’”

A good sign is that Napier didn’t get defensive about his miscues.

He dissected them. He accepted them.

His plan was to spend the evening in his room watching film and refocusing for Sunday’s game.

“I can come in here and not be prepared, or I can come in here and be prepared,” Napier said. “And I like being prepared for everything.”

Everything, including a long and productive NBA career at the point.

After seeing Napier on Saturday take his first step -- and a few missteps, as well -- Thomas likes his chances.

Can the Heat finish off the Nets in Game 5?

May, 14, 2014
May 14
Wallace By Michael Wallace
LeBron JamesAnthony Gruppuso/USA TODAY Sports Since 2010, LeBron and the Heat are 6-0 in Game 5s when they've had a 3-1 series lead.
MIAMI -- Only eight teams in NBA history have rallied from a 3-1 deficit to win a series. That is the current situation for the Nets, who are a desperate -- and therefore dangerous -- team as they prepare for Game 5 Wednesday against the Heat.

That means a veteran-laden Brooklyn roster, anchored by Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, faces odds that run as high as the nearly $200 million in salary and projected luxury-tax penalties it cost to assemble the team this season.

The Nets are one loss from the most expensive failure in league history.

And that makes them one of two things from the Heat’s vantage point: Done, or completely dangerous.

“That’s kind of a tough thing,” Chris Bosh said after the Heat’s morning shootaround Wednesday. “You can’t match their desperation because, for one, they are desperate, their backs are against the wall and they are facing elimination. We’re not facing elimination. But what we do have is our home-court energy, and we can feed off that. We know the desperation we need to come with to close out the series.”

The Heat have established a dominant track record when faced with these opportunities. Since LeBron James and Bosh came to Miami to join Dwyane Wade in 2010, the Heat are 10-3 when they had a chance to close out a series. That stretch includes an 8-0 mark at home under those circumstances, and a 6-0 record overall when they have led a series 3-1.

Pierce is well aware of what’s at stake. When he and Garnett arrived from Boston in a trade last summer, Pierce anticipated Brooklyn’s road to a potential trip to the NBA Finals would travel through Miami. That road could end here unless the Nets find a way to contain James, limit the Heat’s role players, execute on the road and swing the series back to Brooklyn for Game 6 Friday.

“Our season is on the line right now, so every game right now for us is desperation mode,” Pierce said. “No tomorrow, we’ve got to understand that, got to understand the urgency.”

Pierce said he believes the Nets still have the talent to overcome the Heat. But he also mentioned that the focus of Wednesday’s morning shootaround was more about mental preparation and embracing the task at hand, despite how overwhelming it might seem.

After winning all four games against the Heat in the regular season, the Nets haven’t been able to get the consistent offensive balance and late-game defensive execution in this series that allowed them to prevail in three one-point victories and a double-overtime win during the regular season. James is coming off a 49-point effort in Game 4 that matched his playoff career high.

“Think about your situation, the mental toughness you’re going to need,” Pierce said. “Think about the resolve, and we have it. I don’t know if I ever came back from 3-1. Everybody has written you off at this point. As a team, you stay together and grind it out. We can’t have any mental fatigue or weakness.”

The Nets' combination of veteran savvy, streaky 3-point shooting and ability to control the tempo should pose enough of a concern to prevent the Heat from growing complacent.

“Your [past] experiences don’t guarantee you anything right now, but what it teaches you is how difficult it is in the playoffs to win,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “When you have an opportunity to close someone out, you want to take advantage of it because so many things can happen when you leave it to chance. These are games you have to go after. If you have an opportunity to put somebody away, you have to attack that opportunity.”

Bosh said the outcome of Tuesday’s game between the Indiana Pacers and Washington Wizards served as a reminder of what could happen if a team doesn’t play with focus and passion when afforded a chance to end a series at the first opportunity. The Pacers were in the Heat’s position Wednesday when they returned home with a 3-1 series lead against the Wizards and were blown out in Game 5.

“It’s always important to show a good effort on your home court,” Bosh said. “We do want to close this game out. But we’re going to have to play attention to details. We’re going to have to get off to a good start. We’re going to have to play better than we did in Game 4. Hopefully, if we can do all those little things, we’ll come out with a win.”

The Nets aren’t the only team with something at stake Wednesday. A victory for the Heat would give them at least three days of rest before they would play either Washington or Indiana in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals. The ultimate benefit is that it would keep the Heat on track to reach the NBA Finals for a fourth straight season as they attempt to win a third consecutive title.

“We’re still a hungry team, too,” Heat point guard Mario Chalmers said. “The main thing for us is to not feel like we have to rush anything. We have to take our time, because we know [Brooklyn] is going to leave everything out on the court and try to steal one. So it’s vital to keep doing what we came to do.”

LeBron calls for James Jones to play

May, 12, 2014
May 12
Windhorst By Brian Windhorst

NEW YORK -- It’s not usual for LeBron James to question Erik Spoelstra’s coaching decisions, at least not publicly. James has built up tremendous respect for the Miami Heat coach and consistently credits him for his strategies.

But James did send a little message to his coach heading into the Heat’s Game 4 against the Brooklyn Nets. James wants to play more with James Jones, the Heat’s little-used but valuable sweet shooting wing.

James and Jones have been the Heat’s most productive tandem in the playoffs when looking at plus/minus data. But after playing a significant role in the first round against the Charlotte Bobcats, Jones has been out of the rotation in the three games so far against the Nets.

“We have to find some minutes for him, I don’t see why he shouldn’t play,” James said. “He’s huge for our team when he’s in the lineup.”

Jones is 10-of-20 on 3-pointers in the playoffs and he and James complement each other well on the floor. Because Jones is an elite spot-up shooter, James likes to play on the same side of the floor and force defenses to choose between the two. When playing together in the playoffs, Jones and James have combined to shoot 56 percent from the field.

Spoelstra has not used Jones much over the past two seasons, mostly for defensive reasons as he sometimes struggles on that end. James, though, always is more comfortable when playing with shooters, one of the reasons Ray Allen has been such a good fit with the Heat over the past two seasons.

“The space James provides and his ability to shoot the ball is great for us,” James said. “You can’t do both when he’s out on the floor. You can’t help on my drives and contest 3-pointers on him. They have to keep an eye on him.”

Jones came in for nine minutes in garbage time in the fourth quarter of the Nets’ Game 3 victory on Saturday after the Heat were down by double digits, his first extended time in the series. He drilled three 3-pointers in that stretch, two of them off feeds from James.

James’ hints that he wants more of that suggests he’s taken his pleas for Jones to play more meaningful minutes directly to Spoelstra. But the Heat coaches were playing coy when asked about lineup changes before Game 4.

“We’ll find out,” Spoelstra said.

The Heat coach is more concerned about his defense than his offensive-based lineups. The Heat gave up more than 100 points for the first time in the playoffs in Game 3, mostly because the Nets set a franchise playoff record by hitting 15 3-pointers. That is what Spoelstra focused on Monday, trying to get the Heat to not write that off as a fluke shooting performance.

“It’s always an easy crutch in this league [to blame lucky shooting],” Spoelstra said. “You have to decipher what can you do better and harder and then within a seven-game series, what can you adjust. It was tough to figure out what adjustments you need to make in Game 3 when you don’t bring other things that are necessary to our defense first."

Heat Reaction: Heat-Nets, Game 3

May, 10, 2014
May 10
Windhorst By Brian Windhorst

LeBron James
PTS: 28
REB: 8
AST: 5
STL: 1
BLK: 1
FGA-M: 8-15

James got off to a monster start with 16 points on just seven shots in the first quarter. But when he came back into the game he didn't seem to have much of a desire to keep plunging the knife. He put up just two shots in the second quarter, getting fouled on one of them. He ended up with a nice line but didn't sustain the momentum that was required to win this type of game.

Dwyane Wade
PTS: 20
REB: 2
AST: 3
STL: 3
BLK: 0
FGA-M: 9-18

Wade had a decent game and was really trying to carry the scoring load in the second half when the supporting cast was giving no help. He came up with some steals and was generally active defensively. Took more jumpers than you'd like to see but he was not at fault for how this game played out.

Chris Bosh
PTS: 12
REB: 5
AST: 0
STL: 1
BLK: 3
FGA-M: 5-11

Bosh had been excellent in the first two games of this series, especially rebounding the ball. That ended in this one as he was outplayed by the Brooklyn front line. The Heat were heavily outrebounded and that is not totally his fault because that's not his sole role but he sagged back to the mean in that area for sure in Game 3.

Deron Williams
PTS: 9
REB: 3
AST: 11
STL: 1
BLK: 0
FGA-M: 3-11

After the season there's a good chance we'll hear about how much pain Williams had to play through in his ankles. He keeps getting injections and his play keeps going up and down. But he did everything he could in this one, serving as a pivotal factor in getting the offense going as he was able to get penetration and kick out to shooters.

Nets Bench
FGM-A: 13-26 (50.0%)
3PM-A: 6-12 (50.0%)
REB: 22
PTS: 40

This is an area where the deeper Nets need to dominate to have a chance in this series. They didn't in the games in Miami but did once they felt more comfortable at home in Game 3. This is where the game was won especially the 15 points and 10 rebounds from Andray Blatche and the 12 points from Mirza Teletovic.

Ray Allen talks about his success against the Nets during the first two games of the series.

Wade saves best for last in Game 2

May, 9, 2014
May 9
Gutierrez By Israel Gutierrez

MIAMI -- After a surprisingly comfortable win in the series opener against the Nets, the Heat spent a day and a half discussing how much more of a grind Thursday’s game would be.

In fact, Erik Spoelstra said after Miami went up 2-0 in the series that “maybe we talked about it too much.” It seemed they’d done such a thorough job convincing themselves this Game 2 would be ugly that the Heat found themselves easily caught in Brooklyn’s web.

Slower ball movement, more isolation play and a handful of uncharacteristic shots had Miami fulfilling that prophecy before the game could even develop its own identity.

Dwyane Wade was a major contributor to those early struggles. He missed six of his first seven shots, had a difficult time containing Shaun Livingston, who led the Nets starters with 15 points, and it appeared this would be a game where LeBron James would have to do much of the heavy lifting if Miami was going to head to Brooklyn with a 2-0 series lead.

Fortunately for Miami, all the talk predicting this style of game had Wade in grind mode from the start.

[+] EnlargeDwyane Wade
Issac Baldizon/NBAE/Getty ImagesAfter a slow start to Game 2, Dwyane Wade turned it up during Miami's fourth-quarter charge.
Regardless of the missed shots and initial defensive missteps, the mindset for Wade was to do the dirty work, figuring there would be plenty of it available.

You saw signs early, like when he missed an open 3-pointer then immediately stole an outlet pass from Livingston, leading to a new possession that ended in James free throws.

But it wasn’t until the fourth quarter that Wade was truly rewarded for willingly performing all the menial chores.

Miami entered the fourth quarter leading 69-67 and with LeBron on the bench for his regularly scheduled rest.

That’s when Wade saw his chance to drag the Heat out of the quicksand.

He started by backing down the bigger, sturdier Mirza Teletovic for a short shot in the lane.

He picked up a steal from a Kevin Garnett pass and added a 20-foot jumper. Four free throws later, Wade was able to stretch Miami’s lead to 79-73, all without any help from LeBron.

Unless, of course, you count the encouragement LeBron offered in the opening half.

“In the first half, I went up to [Wade] and said, ‘If you have a shot, you gotta take it. Don’t turn up really great shots,’” James said. “In the fourth quarter, he got into his rhythm, got to his pull-up, got to the free throw line, and that definitely helped out a lot.”

And on the possession that defined this game for Miami -- the 1-minute, 40-second possession that included three offensive rebounds and four chances for the Heat -- Wade was vital.

He tipped out LeBron’s second miss of the possession (James took all four shot attempts in that extended possession) for one of his seven rebounds, and he finished off the possession with a no-look pass to LeBron for the layup that put the Heat ahead by 10 and gave Wade one of his seven assists.

Turns out, being in grind mode from the early moments helped make that moment possible for Wade and the Heat.

“You could tell early just how your night’s going offensively,” Wade said. “I saw I was struggling a little bit, so I wanted to do the little things. I wanted to do other things until that opportunity came where I could really help us offensively.

“Obviously, the fourth quarter became a big part of that, but throughout the game defensively, passing the ball, rebounding the ball, doing all the little things I needed to do until my offense came around.”

Perhaps the best sign for Spoelstra was Wade’s ability to play the entire fourth quarter. It’s a rarity for Wade these days, but the situation called for a little extra from the Heat’s all-time leading scorer.

“I thought that I was going to have to take him out at some point, but it was so close, and it got to the six-minute mark, five-minute, four-minute -- ‘You’re gonna have to finish this thing out,’” Spoelstra said. “He dug deep for that one, and that’s what makes Dwyane special. He figures out different ways where you can impact a win. It’s not just scoring.”

Wade said he didn’t even consider sitting in the fourth.

“We didn’t even need to have that conversation,” Wade said. “Winning time. If I needed [a break], I’d look at Coach and say, ‘Give me a quick one.’

“I felt good as far as my wind, and everything like that.”

And that has to make the rest of the Heat feel good. Through six games this postseason, Wade is averaging 16.3 points on 48.1 percent shooting. Last postseason, when a deep knee bruise limited him, Wade averaged 15.9 points on 45.7 percent shooting in 22 games.

Thursday’s performance, though, felt more like one of last postseason’s games for Wade, gutting it out however necessary.

The Nets did indeed make this contest significantly more uncomfortable for the Heat. It just so happens Wade looked rather comfortable in that setting.

Heat Reaction: Nets-Heat, Game 2

May, 8, 2014
May 8
Haberstroh By Tom Haberstroh

LeBron James
PTS: 22
REB: 4
AST: 3
STL: 2
BLK: 1
FGA-M: 9-18

After a strong Game 1, James didn't seem to wake up until late in the second quarter, even though he was jawing with Paul Pierce throughout the game. He took over just before halftime, making four straight buckets to bring the Heat within one. This was an uneven James performance, but his 3-pointer from the right wing provided the dagger.

Dwyane Wade
PTS: 14
REB: 7
AST: 7
STL: 2
BLK: 1
FGA-M: 4-11

In Game 1, the Heat carved out a big lead in the second quarter with Wade anchoring the second unit, but Wade waited until the start of the fourth quarter to get his work done. After scoring just six points in the first three quarters, Wade dominated early in the fourth quarter and the Heat never looked back. A solid all-around game for Wade.

Chris Bosh
PTS: 18
REB: 6
AST: 0
STL: 0
BLK: 3
FGA-M: 7-13

While James and Wade eased their way into the game, Bosh came out firing up 3-pointers and swatting Nets layups like they were Everglades mosquitos. He has played the best all-around ball of the Heat's star trio in this series and they don't win this game without him buoying the team in the first half. His block of Deron Williams at the rim on the Nets' final possession was a fitting end to the game.

Mirza Teletovic
PTS: 20
REB: 2
AST: 0
STL: 0
BLK: 0
FGA-M: 7-12

Step aside, Paul Pierce. Teletovic is this generation's rival for LeBron James. Teletovic lit up the Heat in the regular season and went back to work in Game 2. The 6-foot-9 Teletovic played center for long stretches and made it difficult for the Heat's big men to both protect the paint and cut out his airspace. Teletovic took advantaged and rained from downtown, hitting 6-of-9 from deep.

Brooklyn Nets
FGM-A: 33-78 (42.3%)
3PM-A: 8-24 (33.3%)
REB: 43
TO: 14

Well, Teletovic can only do so much. Williams and Kevin Garnett laid enough bricks in this one to build a house. Garnett especially looked like he was running on empty the entire game and Jason Kidd had no choice but to remove him down the stretch. The Nets had nothing left. You just can't allow a Heat possession to last 1:40 in crunchtime and expect to come out alive.

Battier in the house? Without a doubt!

May, 6, 2014
May 6
Haberstroh By Tom Haberstroh

MIAMI -- Doubt spares nobody. Not even a two-time NBA champion, former NCAA tournament champion, former NCAA Player of the Year, former Academic All-American of the Year and recipient of a seven-figure salary.

The doubt took hold of Shane Battier last month when he fell out of Erik Spoelstra’s rotation and barely played in the month of April. Doubt whether he, at 35, can still play in this league.

“Me? Oh, yeah,” Battier said from his locker after the Miami Heat’s 107-86 victory over the Brooklyn Nets in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series. “You never know.”

Battier was reinserted into the Heat’s starting lineup after playing a total of 2 minutes, 4 seconds in the first round against the Charlotte Bobcats. Battier won a championship as a Duke Blue Devil down the road in Durham, North Carolina, but he was reduced to garbage-time duty against the Bobcats. In the four-game sweep, he received three DNP-Coaching Decisions.

After not playing a meaningful minute in about a month without an injury excuse, Battier found out on Monday afternoon at Miami’s practice that he’d start Game 1.

His reaction?

“Time to go to work,” Battier said. “It wasn’t like I was scared of the moment or overly excited. I just said, ‘OK, it’s time to do my homework on Joe Johnson and Paul Pierce.’ I’ve been doing that my entire career. That much I can control.”

But the butterflies, the doubt, the insecurities -- he couldn’t control those ahead of Game 1.

“Ask my wife,” Battier said. “I was nervous.”

Rust was a big storyline heading into Tuesday’s Game 1, but Battier drilled his first shot of the game, a 3-pointer set up by LeBron James. On the night, Battier finished with eight points in 26 minutes and largely handled his assignment against Pierce and Johnson. It’s not much, but it was all Battier needed to ease his worries.

“Doubt is what drives me, the nervousness that I don’t have it anymore,” Battier said. “There’s nothing a coach or anyone can say to me that’s more powerful than my own fear that I can’t do it anymore.”

It’s not the first time Battier has let the doubt sneak in since joining James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami. When he inked a three-year deal after the lockout in 2011 and struggled for months to find his form, the nerves got the best of him. He finished the season shooting 38.7 percent from the floor and 33.9 percent from downtown -- both career-lows.

“I had insecurities, no question,” Battier said of his first season in 2011-12. “This place, more so than any other place that I’ve been, your insecurities rear its ugly head. It’s not for everybody.”

The Heat, of course, won the title in 2012 after Spoelstra went unconventional and put Battier at the 4 in the starting lineup in the NBA Finals against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Battier responded by hitting 15 3-pointers in five games.

“Doubt has been a driving force since high school,” Battier said. “In high school, when I won national player of the year, I thought maybe I’m just a good high school player and I can’t play at college. And then when I won college player of the year, I thought, 'Well, maybe I’m just a good college player. Maybe I’ll be a bust.'"

The doubt came back again last postseason when he received his first DNP-CD in Game 7 of the Pacers series. Following that game, he went to a local bar and sang karaoke with his wife to fight the doubt. Two weeks later, he had his number called again in Game 7 and hit six 3-pointers in the series clincher.

“I’m 35 years old and I have two titles and now ... you always have to prove yourself, prove it to yourself.”

The journey is not over for Battier. Far from it. This is but one game and it was far from his best. But in this series with the Brooklyn Nets that features former All-Stars who are all nearing the twilight of their careers, it meant a little more to start and perform at a high level. Pierce, 36, and Kevin Garnett, 37, combined for as many points in Game 1 as Battier (eight).

“It comes and goes,” Battier said without specifying what "it" is. “You just never know when.”

Heat Reaction: Nets-Heat, Game 1

May, 6, 2014
May 6
Wallace By Michael Wallace

LeBron James
PTS: 22
REB: 5
AST: 3
STL: 0
BLK: 0
FGA-M: 10-15

So much for rust playing a factor in the game for James, who looked fresh and engaged all night long. This might not be a series where we see a steady ration of explosive plays from James, but he showed Tuesday how he's just as comfortable gradually overwhelming opponents as he is storming through them. James especially seemed to enjoy bullying the Nets in the third quarter to pull away.

Dwyane Wade
PTS: 14
REB: 4
AST: 5
STL: 2
BLK: 0
FGA-M: 7-13

It's obvious Wade will need some time to work himself into a familiar rhythm after having eight days off between playoff rounds. But his early production was encouraging. As Wade admitted before Game 1, this series against Brooklyn is going to force him to work extensively on both ends. This was far short of a breakout game, but he picked his spots and added a bit of everything.

Chris Bosh
PTS: 15
REB: 11
AST: 3
STL: 0
BLK: 0
FGA-M: 5-11

Focused. Aggressive. Committed defensively. Those terms all describe Bosh's play in Game 1 against a Nets front line he had struggled against at times during the regular season. When Bosh is attacking the lane and rim as frequently as he's stepping into perimeter jumpers, it generally leads to a highly productive night. This was Bosh's first double-double since a Feb. 23 win against Chicago.

Shane Battier
PTS: 8
REB: 1
AST: 2
STL: 0
BLK: 0
FGA-M: 3-5

Just when it appeared that Battier had gotten an early start on his retirement, coach Erik Spoelstra reinserted the veteran defender into the starting lineup. Battier played only a couple of minutes in the first-round sweep of Charlotte. But with Miami in need of perimeter length to match up with Brooklyn, Battier responded well. Ray Allen provided the offense with a boost off the bench, as well.

Brooklyn Nets
FGM-A: 33-70 (47.1%)
3PM-A: 10-24 (41.7%)
REB: 32
TO: 11

Maybe it was jet lag from flying to Miami directly from Toronto, where the Nets were extended to a seventh game before advancing. But the competitive fire Brooklyn showed in sweeping the Heat 4-0 in the regular season was quickly doused Tuesday. Nets coach Jason Kidd pulled the plug after a 33-point third quarter from Miami.

LeBron ready to face recurring challenge

May, 5, 2014
May 5
Wallace By Michael Wallace
LeBron James, Paul PierceJim McIsaac/Getty ImagesAfter many battles over the years, LeBron James has not seen the last of Paul Pierce

MIAMI -- LeBron James knew they'd be back.

That's why when many throughout the NBA figured James had vanquished his demons in Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett for good in a seven-game series victory two years ago during the Eastern Conference finals, the Miami Heat superstar knew it wasn't over. Even James' teammates were fooled.

"I thought when we played them in Boston, we buried them," Heat guard Dwyane Wade said. "They had their reign on top. We were able to overcome. We've had our reign on top, and now they're trying to overcome [again]."

Just consider Pierce basketball's version of Michael Myers and Garnett as its Jason Voorhees. It's only a matter of time before the plot thickens, they resurface in a new town and the two wreak more havoc like horror-movie villains.

So after seeing them evolve from the end of an era in Boston to signing on as the championship heart and soul of a reloaded Brooklyn Nets team, James anticipated there would be a reunion with his old rivals in the late spring.

“That's why they put that team together, and it should be fun,” James said of the ex-Celtics catalysts reincarnated as Nets. “You see them so much, there's really nothing to hide. They know my tendencies, I know their tendencies, their likes and dislikes and vice versa. It should be very challenging.”

James is quite familiar with that challenge.

For the third time in four seasons, James and the Heat find themselves staring down Pierce and Garnett in the playoffs, this time in a second-round series against the Nets that opens with Game 1 Tuesday at AmericanAirlines Arena. But James' history with the veteran duo goes back much further to his days in Cleveland. In total, James has faced Pierce and Garnett in 25 playoff games the past seven seasons.

And despite a 13-12 edge in those games, including eight victories in two series wins while with the Heat, James is trying to reverse a more recent trend of struggles against the duo. The Nets swept the regular-season series 4-0, marking the first time Miami has lost four games to an opponent in the regular season since James, Wade and Chris Bosh became teammates in 2010.

Neither the Heat nor the Nets were at full strength for most of those meetings, with both Wade and Garnett missing 28 games to rest and recover from nagging injuries during the season. But the Nets' combination of veteran experience, perimeter length and balanced scoring in those games was enough of a problem to garner the Heat's full attention entering this series.

When the Nets added Pierce to anchor a near-$200 million roster makeover that featured a starting five with a combined 35 All-Star appearances, first-year coach Jason Kidd said Brooklyn had assembled the necessary “horses” to compete with the Heat atop the East.

With the Heat and Nets meeting in the second round, at least one thing is assured: One team's season is going to end in complete failure and well short of expectations based on investment and star power. Heat players acknowledge that the Nets pose arguably the biggest challenge in the conference in Miami's quest to reach the Finals for a fourth straight year and win a third consecutive NBA title.

“They beat us four times, and at the end of the day, it's about getting wins,” Wade said of a regular-season series that saw three games decided by a point and a fourth go to double overtime. “They've figured out ways to beat us in close games four times. So we've got to crack the code. They've strengthened even more since we played them. Obviously, we've gone up another level since the regular season [too], but that doesn't guarantee we win these games.”

Miami and Brooklyn couldn't enter Tuesday under more different circumstances.

The Heat were the only team to sweep its first-round series, and have had eight days off since they finished off the Charlotte Bobcats in four games. The lengthy break has afforded James ample time to recover from a nagging thigh bruise he sustained in the second half of Game 4 in Charlotte.

Wade also said Monday that he's no longer dealing with lingering soreness from the knee, Achilles and hamstring issues he spent the final months of the season battling. But now that the playoffs feature games every other night in the second round, Wade anticipates having to manage recurring soreness.

The Nets, meanwhile, used most of Monday to rest in Miami. They arrived Sunday night after a one-point victory on the road in Game 7 against Toronto, which finished third in the conference behind the Pacers and Heat. Both Pierce and Joe Johnson said they like how well they match up with the Heat and believe their balance and depth could offset the top-heavy dominance of James, Wade and Bosh.

James averaged 30 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists and more than 2 steals while carrying the Heat through a first-round series in which Wade worked through some conditioning issues and Bosh was inconsistent beyond his outside shooting touch.

“It's going to be a lot of LeBron, a lot of Wade, a lot of Bosh,” Pierce said. “With us, I think we have five, six, seven guys that on any given night [can take over a game]. That makes us tough to scout and very unpredictable.”

Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said the Nets' success against Miami this season never came up during any of the preparation for the upcoming series.

“We didn't talk about it, but I'm sure it's great for discussion out there,” Spoelstra said Monday. “It depends on who you ask. Naturally, if we were to talk about it, we would say, 'Hey, this is the playoffs, it's a different season.' If you're them, they're saying, 'Hey, we can beat them. We have great confidence. We already did it four times.' It depends on how you look at it.”

James feels much better about the fact that the Nets will be looking at a Heat team that's healthy and whole after enduring a regular season that saw Miami use 21 different starting lineups because of injuries. The Nets have overcome similar issues since losing center Brook Lopez to a foot injury early in the season. Now, after a handful of sparring matches, James is bracing for a major prizefight.

And after so many battles over so many seasons in so many different uniforms, it's yet another showdown with Pierce that stands between James and another dose of postseason prosperity.

“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. It's another opportunity to see who gets the upper edge.”
James/PierceJim McIsaac/Getty ImagesPaul Pierce and the Nets have a perfect record against the Heat this season.
After sweeping the Miami Heat during the regular season, do the Brooklyn Nets have an edge as the two teams prepare to battle in the second round of the playoffs? Our panel goes 3-on-3:

1. Fact or Fiction: The Heat's 0-4 record against the Nets this season is a cause for concern.

Israel Gutierrez: Fiction. It's not only that three wins were by a point and the other win was in double overtime, but also that the Heat, while playing well in short segments, weren't playing well consistently. Miami tends to play more consistently during the playoffs. And based on the Toronto series, the Nets will show their age at times, which Miami can take advantage of by running far better than the Raptors did.

Tom Haberstroh: Fiction. Here's how the margin at the end of regulation looked in the four games: Brooklyn plus-one, Brooklyn plus-one, tied, Brooklyn plus-one. If the Heat were getting blown out of every game, then it would be a concern. They picked heads four times, came up tails.

Michael Wallace: Fact. There were no fluke performances among the four games. There were three one-point games and another decided in overtime. The Heat have some real matchup issues with the combination of length, skill and experience. If the Nets can dictate their pace and protect the ball, they can cause Miami some real problems.

2. Fact or Fiction: When the ball is tipped in Game 1, the Heat will have the three best players on the floor.

Gutierrez: Fiction. At least not based on production. The Nets can claim either Deron Williams or Joe Johnson as better than either Chris Bosh or Dwyane Wade in any given game, especially if you're going by final stat lines. Johnson and/or Williams will be required to be at their best for the Nets to have a chance in this series, so if Miami proves to have the three best players, it'll be a short series.

Haberstroh: Fact. But the Nets probably have four through 12, which may not matter as much in the playoffs. Dwyane Wade hasn't played much, but when he does, he's still a top player in the league. Joe Johnson bludgeoned Toronto's wings, but I don't see that happening against Miami.

Wallace: Fiction. Paul Pierce may not be close to what he was in his prime, but he's found a way to turn back the clock against the Heat. I'm sure Joe Johnson would object to this premise as well. This series will be determined as much by the next three in the respective rotations as much as by the best three on either side.

3. Fact or Fiction: The Heat wrap this series up in 5 games or fewer.

Gutierrez: Fact. I've got it ending in five, in part because the Heat were able to rest and probably had the Nets in mind the entire time they were waiting. Once the Heat adjust to Brooklyn's size on the wing and their paint-protecting defense, Miami will have a relatively easy time.

Haberstroh: Fiction. The Dwyane Wade factor looms large, but I don't think the Heat put on the gentleman's sweep. Wade, timely rest and a motivated LeBron James will make the regular-season sweep a mirage, but it will take six games to do so.

Wallace: Fiction. I'm taking the over, with this being settled in six or seven games. Pierce and Kevin Garnett have a reputation for making things drag out when facing LeBron and the Heat. Different team, same drama.
LeBron JamesAP Photo/Frank Franklin IIKing James and the defending champs have hit a rough patch recently. Is it time to be concerned?
Here are 25 takes on the Miami Heat, who have lost four of their past five games:

1. What's Miami's biggest issue right now?

Israel Gutierrez, The "other" guys just aren't in rhythm. The combination of Shane Battier, Mario Chalmers, Ray Allen and Norris Cole shot a combined 33.7 percent in the Heat's four recent losses, with Battier's 15 percent shooting (2-of-13) being the worst of the group. That tells you they're not getting the same opportunities as usual, or at least not regularly enough to find a rhythm. That's resulted in the league's most efficient offense shooting 47.5, 43, 40.5 and 48.5 percent in those losses.

Tom Haberstroh, ESPN Insider: The Heat are getting nothing from the supporting cast outside of Chris Andersen. Ray Allen and Shane Battier have both shown their age, and Michael Beasley hasn't been the same since they guaranteed his contract back in early January. Besides that, they've faced some tough defenses, so I'm not sure the slide is indicative of any major issues.

Ethan Sherwood Strauss, TrueHoop: Ray Allen, legendary shooter and hero of Game 6. He's a glaring defensive minus, and he's missing shots that he typically hit in the past. It sounds crazy to say it, but in 2014, you trust Chris Bosh (.386 from deep this season) more to hit an open 3-pointer than Allen (.361 from deep this season). Miami already lost a great shooter when it amnestied Mike Miller; the Heat want Allen to return to form in the playoffs.

Michael Wallace, Heat Index: Supporting cast inconsistency. Early in the season, Ray Allen said this had the potential to be the deepest and most talented collection of role players of any team he's been with over 18 seasons. With 20 games left in the season, we're still waiting for that potential to translate into consistent production. Allen, Shane Battier and Norris Cole have been in prolonged slumps, Mario Chalmers and Michael Beasley have been hit or miss all season, and Greg Oden appears no closer to being playoff ready than when he first saw action before the All-Star break.

Brian Windhorst, Heat Index: Execution, specifically late-game execution. Three of these four recent losses were the result of the Heat not being able to execute in the final moments of regulation. When they won 66 games last season, it seemed like they almost always sealed the deal at the end, for various reasons they have not been getting it done lately.

2. Fact or Fiction: LeBron has lost his MVP momentum.

Gutierrez: Fact. A hard crack to the nose will do that sometimes. Since the 61, LeBron has shot more than 50 percent just once in five tries. And it's no coincidence he shot zero free throws in back-to-back games after ditching his mask against the Spurs. Also, his team's struggles are now on the forefront, so the attention has drifted from MVP candidacy anyway.

Haberstroh: Fiction. Are we sure he had any momentum to begin with? I subscribe to Hall of Fame baseball manager Earl Weaver's ethos that "momentum is the next day's starting pitcher." It feels like there is no momentum in this MVP race, as every game seems to be a referendum on Durant's and LeBron's careers. I will say that for a guy who has shot 43 percent from downtown over his last 10 games, it's odd to hear that James has suddenly lost his jumper.

Strauss: Fact. LeBron's mortal stretch contributed to this Heat slump. He looked like a lesser player after ditching the mask, failing to reach the free throw line in consecutive games. LeBron could have taken the award if he and the Heat were customarily excellent as OKC struggled, but that window appears to have closed.

Wallace: Fact. The two strongest arguments in Kevin Durant's case have been that he's been more consistent with his elite-level production and that he's done it in a much stronger Western Conference. Since that career-high, 61-point night two weeks ago, LeBron has hit a relative wall. There's still time for LeBron to make another push, but Durant seems to have regained control of the MVP race.

Windhorst: Fact. He's played probably his four most "blah" games of the season since he put up his 61 points. It's a combination of things -- he's slumped a bit shooting, and he's also not been as aggressive as his plunging free throws and zero fourth-quarter shots in the loss to the Nets show.

3. Fact or Fiction: Brooklyn is Miami's second-biggest threat in East.

Gutierrez: Fiction. As much as a 3-0 record against Miami would suggest otherwise, the Nets aren't dominant in any particular area against Miami. The Bulls, on the other hand, can dominate both on the boards and defensively when playing the Heat. The Nets' specialty is simply interchangeable perimeter defenders and veteran-savvy scorers. But neither team has really emerged as a true threat to the Heat in a seven-game series.

Haberstroh: Fiction. The Chicago Bulls are still that team for me. Even after all these years, the Heat haven't cracked the Tom Thibodeau defense yet. The Heat have defended well enough against the Bulls' feeble offense that they've gotten by. The Nets have done an impressive job against the Heat, but if Bosh makes that pass to LeBron at the end, we aren't even asking this question.

Strauss: Fiction. Regular-season records mean little as far as playoff outcomes go, in most instances. I don't buy that Brooklyn has some magic quality that, say, Toronto lacks. Also, I'd hazard that Chicago's a bigger threat on account of having a defense that makes LeBron less efficient.

Wallace: Fact. The Heat have had regular-season struggles against Chicago, Boston and even New York in the past, only to beat up on those foes in the postseason. But these difficulties with Brooklyn feel different. The Nets have shown during a 3-0 mark against Miami that they can create serious, sustainable matchup problems for the Heat because of their combination of length, skill, perimeter shooting, balance and experience. If healthy, Brooklyn can almost rival Indiana as a potential postseason headache for Miami.

Windhorst: Fact. But this has been the case for a while now, even before they got hot. The Nets have a team that is built for the playoffs because they play at their best when the game is slow, and have postseason experience. However, there's a good chance the Nets will be on the other side of the bracket if the Heat stay in the No. 2 seed, because Toronto has a far easier schedule than the Nets and currently has the No. 3 seed.

4. Fact or Fiction: Three-peat fatigue is a legit concern for Miami.

Gutierrez: Fact, at least currently. It won't continue into the playoffs, but it's real right now and being acknowledged. Perhaps this losing stretch is enough to shake them out of it.

Haberstroh: Fiction. The Heat's last six opponents all rank in the top-10 in defense with the exception of the Nets, who have been a top-5 defense since the new year. OK, and the Wizards rank 11th. Still, I'm blaming the schedule more than fatigue. If Wade, LeBron and Bosh don't get some rest down the stretch run, let's revisit this question.

Strauss: Fiction. Actual, literal fatigue might be a problem for older veterans such as Ray Allen and Shane Battier (and yes, Dwyane Wade), but I don't buy the notion that they're tired of the title-winning process. This seems more like a preemptive excuse than an explanation for why failure might occur.

Wallace: Faction. It's fact in the sense that three straight years of reaching the Finals has been an emotional and psychological grind that LeBron and Chris Bosh are now acknowledging publicly after tough losses. But it's fiction in the sense that you never hear that excuse -- or logical explanation -- used after big wins. There's a burden that comes with being a two-time defending champion. And there's a reason why only three franchises have won three titles in a row.

Windhorst: Fiction. It's really hard to win three consecutive playoff series and reach the Finals -- you need skill, strategy and luck. Doing it four years in a row hasn't happened in 25 years for a reason, because you need those things to align. But the reason the Heat are struggling a little right now has nothing to do with how they'll perform in the postseason, they know what they're doing.

5. Fact or Fiction: Wade's recent play has eased concerns about his health.

Gutierrez: Fact. He looked great Wednesday while the rest of his team was somewhat lethargic, which compounded his frustrations that night. And he played in a Sunday-Monday back-to-back set without any setbacks. At this point it appears if he can avoid a freakish injury, he'll be able to maintain this level of play the rest of the season.

Haberstroh: Fact. Eased is the right word. But there is still some concern because, well, there's three months of basketball before the Finals come around. A lot can happen between now and then, but Wade's strong play as of late -- especially getting to the line -- has given the Heat much validation for their maintenance program.

Strauss: Fact. I say "fact," because wouldn't we all be worried if he was playing badly? Those health concerns will persist, but his stellar recent play has certainly eased some worries.

Wallace: Fact. The steady progress Wade has shown with his game and his knee rehab since the All-Star break has been the most encouraging aspect of the past month for Miami. Despite four losses in the past five games, the silver lining has been Wade's steady and reliable play heading down the stretch as the Heat gear up for the playoffs. One key measure of Miami's success in the regular season was whether the team could get Wade to this point feeling relatively healthy and confident. So far, so good.

Windhorst: Fact. Wade's entire season has been a smashing success. The issue, however, is that Wade seems to have setbacks that last days or weeks without warning and without regard to how careful the team is with him. There hasn't been one since January, but it's hard to know if that's good or bad news since the setbacks have been unforeseen in the past.

Heat's three-peat fatigue showing

March, 13, 2014
Mar 13
Gutierrez By Israel Gutierrez

MIAMI -- The looks on the faces of Miami Heat players were telling, and they were not merely the result of an old nemesis lighting them up.

The baffled glances from LeBron James over to Mario Chalmers at halftime after Chalmers decided to end the half by dribbling out the clock and launching an errant 3-pointer.

The look of a frustrated Dwyane Wade, alone under the basket without the ball coming his way in a crucial possession with less than a minute remaining.

The stares between James and Chris Bosh after the two couldn’t connect on a play drawn up brilliantly that looked like it would’ve resulted in a game-winning layup for James or a trip to the foul line (or both).
[+] EnlargeJames
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesLeBron James and the Heat lost to the Nets for the third time this season.

Those were the looks of a team not truly expecting what they’re experiencing -- at least not at this time of the season. Not after an eight-game win streak that appeared to show the Heat were fine-tuned and playoff-ready.

Miami’s 96-95 loss to the Brooklyn Nets, its fourth loss in five games, was especially frustrating to the Heat not because Paul Pierce went off for 29 points on just 12 shots, or because the Heat are now 0-3 against a hot Brooklyn team that Miami could end up facing in the playoffs. Those kinds of concerns were the stuff of three seasons ago.

This was three-peat fatigue -- the kind of difficulties everyone told the Heat they’d experience during another long run for a title, but the kind of difficulties you don’t even recognize until you’re in the middle of them.

Granted, the Nets pose matchup problems for Miami, even when Kevin Garnett is out of the game like he was on Wednesday. And yes, the Nets’ switching defense gives the Heat problems. And of course, the Nets are now 23-9 in 2014 and looking much more like the team many thought they’d be back in November.

But when James doesn’t get a single field-goal attempt in the fourth quarter, and when Miami turns it over seven times in a tight fourth, and when Wade takes a difficult turnaround jumper over Pierce in a critical situation seemingly out of frustration, you know that something is off with this group.

Bosh explained it best.

“It’s just a feeling,” Bosh said. “It’s just like, ‘Man, come on.’ You tell your body to go some days and it doesn’t want to go. And you don’t have any control of when it comes. It just comes when it comes. It’s more so doing the hard things -- getting loose balls, playing against everybody’s best every night.

“It’s frustrating not going. You’re just in a cold sweat. It’s like, ‘Come on! We gotta have more energy.’ You try and it’s just not there.

“It’s extremely tough trying to do this thing again.”

The challenge gets even more problematic when the Heat can’t even muster a well-executed play down the stretch.

Wednesday’s game makes it three of the Heat’s past four losses where failed execution late in close contests doomed them.

Against the Houston Rockets, James dribbled down the clock and missed a contested 3-pointer. Against the Chicago Bulls, James was stripped by Jimmy Butler in what started to look like a go-ahead layup. And Wednesday, trailing by a point with 3.5 seconds left, Bosh didn’t lead James enough on an inbounds pass, allowing Shaun Livingston to tip the ball away and effectively kill the final seconds off the clock.

“We do need to execute down the stretch,” Wade said. “We need to be able to at least get the ball at the rim.”

While Wade’s answer to whether he was concerned about the four-of-five losses was a simple “nope,” this game had to be additionally aggravating for him because he didn’t seem to be suffering from three-peat fatigue. In fact, he looked especially quick, and if not for a few ball-handling mishaps could’ve put together a significantly better game than his 22 points on 8-of-11 shooting.

His frustration was most evident with the Heat trailing by 94-92 with a minute remaining. Wade set a screen for Ray Allen, who drew the attention of the Nets' defenders, leaving Wade momentarily open for either a lob pass or a simple pass under the basket for a layup. In fact, Wade even jumped in anticipation of a potential lob, exasperated when it didn’t come.

Eventually, Wade ended up with the ball in the mid-post and Pierce on his back. Wade tried to fake Pierce with some fancy dribbling, then shot a turnaround with Pierce draped all over him. It missed.

Fittingly for Miami, Deron Williams hit one of his two baskets on the night (2-of-8) to give the Nets a four-point lead with 35 seconds remaining.

It was all further evidence that Bosh’s assessment is correct.

“I don’t think we’re getting the best shots possible,” Bosh said. “We took some contested turnaround jumpers. We’re not getting our guys in their situations. I think we’re too good for that. I think we need to have LeBron catching the ball where he’s a threat, Dwyane catching the ball where he’s a threat and me catching the ball where I’m a threat and see if the defense can guard it.

“I mean, we’re not helping ourselves in any aspect of the game right now. As tough as today was, we had a chance to win it.”

Further proof was LeBron’s fourth quarter: no shots, two points, two assists.

“I just wasn’t in the situation to get [a field-goal attempt],” said James, who broke his personal streak of 20-point games against the Nets at 22 games, dating back to April 2007. “The way we ran the offense, D-Wade handled the ball a lot and I was more of a facilitator. It’s just how the game was played.”

How many times since the 2011 NBA Finals has that really been an issue for the four-time MVP?

Bosh said his team has to “exhale a little bit” and realize it’s this group’s latest challenge, one it can overcome.

Or, as Wade put it:

“We have something to work on as a team in our fourth year together. It’s not a bad thing.”

Heat Reaction: Grading Nets-Heat

March, 12, 2014
Mar 12
Windhorst By Brian Windhorst

Brooklyn hits its stride heading into Miami

March, 12, 2014
Mar 12
Wallace By Michael Wallace

MIAMI -- Midweek games midway through March don’t usually generate this kind of buzz from the Miami Heat.

But this one is different.

This one is against the Brooklyn Nets, who visit AmericanAirlines Arena on Wednesday (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET) as the only NBA team to beat the Heat at least twice without a loss this season. One sign of how serious Miami is taking this matchup came when LeBron James interrupted a reporter in the process of pointing out the Nets' 2-0 regular-season mark against Miami.

“Well, 3-0 if you count the preseason,” James shot back. “We look forward to playing them.”

Yes, even the two-time defending champions still have certain opponents circled on their calendar as potential measuring sticks that could play out in the postseason. Coming into the season, no team caught the Heat’s attention like the Indiana Pacers, who have targeted the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference and maintain a slight lead in the standings over second-place Miami with a month left until the playoffs.

The Chicago Bulls, of course, have been a longtime nemesis for the Heat -- even with their injury issues.

But Brooklyn also generated its share of noise early when first-year coach Jason Kidd told reporters last summer that the Nets “have the horses” with a reloaded roster to contend with the Heat. Then, a combination of injuries, a rift within Kidd’s staff and chemistry issues derailed the Nets and doused much of the enthusiasm that accompanied the offseason arrival of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce.

But since losing 21 of their first 31 games, the Nets have gone 22-9 to post the best record in the conference since Jan. 1. Perhaps no team in the league more than Miami appreciates the initial growing pains that come with assembling a high-profile roster amid a championship-or-bust scenario.

And the Nets are going through the process with a much older core of Garnett, Pierce and Joe Johnson than the Heat did when James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh came together all in their primes in 2010.

“We know how difficult it is to come together with high expectations,” Bosh said of the Heat, who stumbled to a 9-8 start during the 2010-11 season before ultimately losing to Dallas in the NBA Finals. “You knew it was only a matter of time before they figured it out. They have a very good veteran group. We owe these guys. We haven’t beaten them yet. We need this win on Wednesday.”

The Heat (44-17) hope to use this week’s four-game homestand to rebound from last week’s three-game losing streak that featured James’ most prolonged slump of the season. Miami began the recovery process with Monday’s 99-90 win against the Wizards, a game in which James, Bosh and Wade combined to account for 67 points, 19 rebounds and 15 assists. It was only the fifth time this season that James, Wade and Bosh each finished with at least 20 points in the same game.

But defense and rebounding have been far greater concerns for the Heat. Over the past four games, Miami has been outrebounded by an average of 11 boards. Against the Wizards, the Heat overcame a 50-33 disadvantage on the glass by scoring 22 points off 19 turnovers and holding Washington to just two field goals over the final 5:43 of the game.

Spoelstra has challenged to Heat “get back to our identity” by addressing some concerns that have plagued the team in recent weeks. Slow starts and sluggish finishes were also a recent problem. Getting James on the attack and back to the free throw line is also a priority. James hasn’t attempted a free throw for two straight games for the first time since his rookie season.

James said he’s “very surprised” he hasn’t gotten calls to go in his favor despite aggressively driving into the lane the past two games. Spoelstra said he wouldn’t campaign to officials, but that he was confident the results would come if James continued to play his customary game.

“Can we work on things that failed us yesterday and do a better job of it today?” Spoelstra said of the daily approach to correcting some of the issues. “That’s growth. It’s good character to be able to respond like that. Hopefully we can continue.”

The Nets (32-30) also look to extend their recent surge, a push that has been boosted by the trade deadline acquisition of scoring guard Marcus Thornton to help off the bench. Brooklyn has won two in a row and six of its past seven games, a stretch that has coincided with Garnett sitting out the past six games with back spasms. Garnett reportedly didn’t make the trip to Miami for Wednesday’s game, and the Nets forward Andrei Kirilenko is questionable with a sore ankle.

Kidd’s handling of his veterans -- reducing minutes and extending nights off amid nagging injuries -- has been similar to the Heat’s approach, specifically with Wade, this season. Brooklyn is 7-6 this season without Garnett, who is averaging a career-low 21 minutes a game. Pierce is also averaging a career-low 13.2 points, but the Nets have maintained a focus on keeping both healthy for the postseason.

“I can appreciate it,” Wade said of the Nets' long-range outlook. “Everybody’s got a maintenance plan. Ours is the only one talked about. At this point, you’ve got a veteran team … you’ve got to do things you need to do. They’ve done a good job resting guys. It’s a big picture for certain teams. We’re one of them, they’re one of them, and the Spurs are one of them. We’re older guys, and it works for us.”

The Nets have steadied themselves after some early turbulence.

But Kidd suggested from the outset that his team might follow the Heat’s blueprint.

“When the Heat were put together, there was talk of going undefeated,” Kidd sarcastically said last July. “They didn’t get off to a great start, but they found a way to win back-to-back championships. We’re not the Miami Heat, but we [also] feel that we can compete at a high level. With that being said, there’s going to be a lot of eyes on us.”

With Brooklyn currently in position to be a potential second-round playoff opponent, the Nets have the Heat’s complete attention heading into the season’s stretch run.

“They should,” James said. “Talent doesn’t always win, but they’re playing great basketball right now.”



Dwyane Wade
23.3 5.5 1.1 33.0
ReboundsC. Bosh 8.2
AssistsD. Wade 5.5
StealsM. Chalmers 1.7
BlocksC. Bosh 0.8