On Tuesday the Heat will kick off the second round of their playoff run against the Nets -- the only team to sweep Miami in its regular season series. That turnout made narrative sense, in a way, given that Brooklyn's roster seemed to be built specifically to accommodate this particular matchup. Deron Williams and the injured Brook Lopez (who has been sidelined by a foot injury since December) could attack the Heat at two points of relative weakness. Joe Johnson gave Brooklyn a legitimate offensive threat and big, strong defender who could challenge Dwyane Wade on both ends. Then, in late June, the Nets swung a deal to acquire Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett from the Celtics -- two valuable assets in a general sense with particular experience in pushing the Heat to their competitive limits.
LeBron James played 25 career postseason games (and Dwyane Wade 17) against Pierce and Garnett's Celtics, each tense in its own way. Those two may be Celtics no longer, but their experiences in Boston -- namely those playoff battles waged against Miami -- give this upcoming series a certain intrigue. From Tim Bontemps of the New York Post:
“I thought when we played them in Boston, we buried them,” Dwyane Wade said at the Heat’s practice Monday. “Then we got Ray, Doc [Rivers] left, [and] we were like, ‘Yeah, there they go.’”
But that all changed, of course, when Pierce and Garnett were dealt to Brooklyn last June, helping to create a $190 million-plus roster with championship aspirations and bringing some of that bad blood with them.
...“It’s just part of playing them,” Wade said of the bad blood between the two tandems. “It’s just a part of them being good, us being good, them not like us for being good and we not liking them for being good. When we first started this thing, they were the big bullies on the block and we had to come and try to impose our will.
“It took us a while to get there, but we eventually did. But they’ve got pride as well, and they wouldn’t back down. Whenever we get into a series like that, it’s just physical, [with] guys who don’t want to lose and have will to win. At the end of the day, it’s ultimate respect.”
"Ultimate respect" is an interesting way to frame a relationship that has always been a bit testy. Just a month ago LeBron James literally laughed off the notion that the Nets might be the Heat's biggest challenge in the Eastern Conference:
James was asked the above question just after being denied at the rim on a potential game-winning dunk by Brooklyn's Mason Plumlee -- was he so dismissive because he was still salty from the play (and what he deemed a lack of a foul call)? Was his chuckle more out of respect to the Pacers, who in spite of their struggles wound up as the East's No. 1 seed? Interpret as you will.
Things were even a bit prickly between the two teams back in October, when James, in light of their recent exit, openly challenged Pierce and Garnett for their comments made regarding Ray Allen's 2012 departure from the Celtics (via Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com):
“I think the first thing I thought was, ‘Wow, Ray got killed for leaving Boston, and now these guys are leaving Boston,’” James said. “I think it’s OK; I didn’t mind it. But there were a couple guys who basically [expletive] on Ray for leaving, and now they’re leaving.
“That’s the nature of our business, man. I don’t know what Boston was going through at the end of the day. I know Ray had to make the best decision for him and his family and his career. Doc, KG and Paul did that as well. You can’t criticize someone who does something that’s best for their family.”
CBSSports.com reported that Garnett replied after hearing of James' comments: “Tell LeBron to worry about Miami. He has nothing to do with Celtic business.”
Allen, at the time of his decision to leave the Celtics to sign with the Heat, did take a bit of a beating. At Boston’s 2012 Media Day, Garnett told reporters that he lost Ray Allen’s phone number and that he “[wasn't] trying to communicate” with his former teammate. When the Celtics and Heat played in November, Allen famously attempted to high-five Garnett, only to receive a cold shoulder and be completely ignored.
Finally, former Celtics (and current Clippers) head coach Doc Rivers opined last season that Allen “absolutely” made the wrong choice, that Allen wanted a bigger role on offense and that Allen was “bothered” by the fact that he didn’t start for Boston late in his term there.
Although both Rivers’ departure and the Garnett/Pierce blockbuster trade possessed plenty of moving parts that created emotional divorces, James was fundamentally correct: Rivers, Garnett and Pierce all made the same calculation as Allen, just one year later. Rivers has admitted that he didn’t have the stomach for a rebuild, and Garnett possessed a no-trade clause in his contract that would have allowed him to follow through on his February declaration that he wanted to “retire a Celtic.”
The same day that James spoke up in Allen's defense, Pierce committed a hard foul on James in the open court...of a preseason game:
Video via The Brooklyn Game.
After the fact, Pierce reflected on the foul to the New York Daily News:
“Definitely we want to be a hard, grind-it-out team,” Pierce said of the Nets’ defensive philosophy. “We don’t (want) nothing to be easy for the other team.”
In early November, Williams told ESPNNewYork.com that he liked his reloaded team's chances of winning a potential series against Miami. “I don’t know if we felt we were a better team than the Heat last year," Williams said. “And so I think in order for us to be able to beat them this year, we have to feel like we are a better team and we can beat them. And I think we do.”