Matchup: No. 2 Miami Heat (54-28) vs. No. 6 Brooklyn Nets (44-38)
Season series: Nets swept 4-0
Efficiency rankings: Miami (2nd offense, 11th defense), Brooklyn (14th offense, 19th defense)
Last round: Heat beat No. 7 Bobcats 4-0; Brooklyn beat No. 3 Raptors 4-3.
When the Nets traded for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce last summer, it was with the intention of building a team capable of beating the Heat. After a painful exit in Game 7 of the first round, Brooklyn was determined to bring a winning tradition to the borough. In Garnett and Pierce, it finally had the veteran leadership it had been lacking. But penciling a Heat-Nets series into the playoffs wasn't so simple. The Nets had to overcome a 10-21 start, the trials and tribulations of their first-year head coach Jason Kidd and a slew of injuries, including losing Brook Lopez for the season and Kevin Garnett for a month.
But Brooklyn overcame it all, going small to win big and make it to the playoffs. Faced with another Game 7 in the first round -- just like the one they had come up short in last season -- the Nets triumphed this time. Garnett had a double-double, Pierce made the game-winning block and a date with the Heat was carved into the postseason ledger, giving Brooklyn its long-awaited shot at Miami.
The Case For The Heat
I've had more trouble signing my name on receipts than I'll have making a case for why the Heat should win this second-round series. Let me hit you with the Cliff Notes version. Miami is the two-time defending champions, the only team coming off a first-round sweep, the only team with LeBron James and the only one coming off a full week of rest.
Need more? How about the motivation of getting revenge on a team that swept them during the regular season and against two old stars (Pierce and KG) that dealt LeBron loss after loss in his formative years. Brooklyn lacks a solid defensive option to matchup with James and will put Garnett's 37-year-old legs to the test in guarding Chris Bosh. The Heat have had a week to prepare for its Eastern Conference semifinal showdown -- the Nets have had a day. All of the above should be enough to convince you that Miami is the heavy favorite.
The Case For The Nets
This argument isn't as simple, but there's still plenty of supporting evidence. As mentioned before, the Nets swept the Heat during the regular season, and it wasn't because of a lack of effort. LeBron James averaged 41.7 minutes per game against Brooklyn this season, his highest mark against any team. Furthermore, the Nets beat the Heat in a variety of ways. In the second game of the year, they edged the Heat at full strength and with Brook Lopez on the floor. In January, it was a double-overtime thriller and Joe Johnson keeping pace with LeBron. In March, Paul Pierce turned back the clock to pour in 29 points. And then last month, rookie Mason Plumlee blocked LeBron's game-winning dunk attempt, punctuating an impressive defensive effort in which the Nets held the Heat to just 87 points.
But the 4-0 record is a bit deceiving. As ESPN.com's Tom Haberstroh points out, in those four games the Nets led at the end of regulation by +1, 0, +1 and +1. Not exactly a thorough domination. But they were wins nonetheless -- wins the Nets can point to and remind themselves that they have what it takes to beat the Heat.
Paul Pierce. The former Celtics star must come up with a huge series in order to down his longtime rivals. We know Pierce loves to beat Miami -- three of his top 12 scoring efforts this season came against the Heat -- and the reason he came to Brooklyn was to give himself the best chance of doing just that. Now, after a season of pacing himself and being cautious, Pierce must empty the tank against the Heat in order to prevail. Not only does he need to step up offensively -- he averaged a season-best 21.3 points per game against Miami and shot 55.3 percent from the field in four games -- but he needs to give the Nets something on defense too, as he'll be tasked with guarding LeBron and Dwyane Wade at different portions of the series.
Heat in six. The Nets might represent the Heat's most formidable challenger in the East, but no squad is equipped to stop a motivated LeBron James in the postseason. Brooklyn has had success turning its season around by playing small ball, but they'll be playing into Miami's strength if they go that route in the second round. The Heat are well rested and tested -- making them the easy pick in this series.