Games between these two teams are side-eye specials. There’s a little vinegar in almost every possession, be it Jason Terry encouraging the crowd to boo behind LeBron James’ back when he’s at the foul line or Dwyane Wade doing little fly-bys of the Nets’ bench after baskets.
But as they retreated after the Nets’ 101-100 victory in the first of what could be many intriguing games this season, the stares were appraising in nature.
Yes, this is a rivalry, with slights and bruises going back a decade in some cases. That’s all understood. But on this night, the two teams learned something about each other. Beyond the drama of the final minute, in which the Heat almost erased a five-point deficit in a near Finals flashback. Beyond a free throw Ray Allen should've made and Chris Bosh should've missed. Beyond the Nets getting their first win against the Heat since 2009, were more substantial lessons.
The Heat felt just how deep and flexible the Nets' $180 million roster can be and tasted the sort of issues it could cause them over the long haul. And the Nets felt just how hard it can be just to beat the Heat one time -- even on a good night -- and tasted the reality of just how hard it might be to have to beat them four out of seven in a playoff series down the road.
“They’re impressive,” said Wade, who looked healthy in scoring 21 points. “They’re going to be a team we’re going to battle with. They made the Eastern Conference tougher. They’re going to be a good team, there’s no secret about that.”
The impressive part to the Heat is not the star power. It sells tickets and drives ratings, but the Heat are well past the point of getting impressed with playing against teams stacked with All-Stars, current or former.
No, what got to them was just how many different ways the Nets could come at them.
The Heat’s opposition has had three years to manage their rosters and make moves to combat the powerhouse in South Florida. No organization has been as aggressive as Brooklyn, and most of its moves have been aimed at taking down the Heat’s strengths. The Nets' progress in this area was evident right away.
The automatic response when looking at the two teams is to look at the Nets’ size advantage. But size has never scared the Heat, and it has yet to beat them since they added pieces such as Shane Battier, Ray Allen and Chris Andersen that make their space-conscious lineups so hard for opponents to handle.
But the Nets aren't just big. They can be small, they can play all perimeter-based players at once if they want and they can even play reasonably fast.
The Nets played center Brook Lopez just 20 minutes Friday -- he was in foul trouble, but it didn't really matter. They moved Andrei Kirilenko around. They played Kevin Garnett at both power forward and center. They got quality minutes and multiple positions from Alan Anderson. Even Andray Blatche gave the Heat problems at times.
“They’re similar to us, they can play different styles,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “That should serve them well.”
That’s a compliment and an understated “game on” from Spoelstra, who engineered a system with the Heat that allows them to create matchup advantages because so many of his players can swing between positions.
The Nets don’t have James, who can play all five positions, and they don’t have a creator like Wade. But they can put five players on the floor at once who aren't afraid to take a pressure shot and have to be respected.
Friday, Paul Pierce had 17 points in the second half and a few clutch plays down the stretch, including what had to be a satisfying block of James, who also had 17 of his 26 points after halftime. But it could just as easily have been Deron Williams, Joe Johnson or Garnett who came up big. Those terms sound a lot like describing the Heat.
When the game was over, it was noted Miami hadn't lost back-to-back games since last January and they hadn't been below .500 -- they’re now 1-2 -- since losing their first game in Boston back in 2010.
If you were to ask the Heat, the last time they were below .500 was when they were down 3-2 to the Spurs in last season’s Finals. The point being they never panic. They were down 12 points with 2:47 to go and nearly forced overtime because with their experience, athleticism and array of 3-point shooters, there is no such thing as a safe lead.
Just ask the Spurs about that.
There’s a reason they’re 11-1 in playoff series over the past three years and they’ve come from behind over and over. They are always just a possession or two away from being great. So no matter how much you spend, how deep your roster is or how big your lead might be, the Heat are always dangerous.
“We've played in every kind of game you can imagine,” James said. “We understand what we have to fix and correct.”