Nap time is over for the Heat while the Brooklyn Nets flew into town wishing they had been able to catch a little more REM slumber before running into the buzz saw of the two-time defending champions on Tuesday in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Brooklyn’s wizened leaders, Paul Pierce, 36, and Kevin Garnett, 38 in two weeks, could use some rest for their weary legs after being pushed to seven games by Toronto, but they don’t need any extra time to prepare their heads for the Heat.
This second-round series will be a reunion of sorts for the key players. Not the kind characterized by hugs and harmonizing on Auld Lang Syne. No. It’s going to be intense, befitting any Miami vs. New York contest.
Add the fact that the Nets swept the Heat 4-0 during the regular season in three games that were decided by one point and one that went to double overtime.
Then, blend in a much longer history. LeBron James plays Pierce and Garnett for the fifth time in the past seven years of playoffs. Dwyane Wade meets them for the fourth time in five seasons.
Now, Pierce and Garnett are wearing black, having been imported to Brooklyn by Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov as part of the plan to get past the Heat and on to an NBA title.
But when Pierce and Garnett wore Boston Celtics green, they starred in memorable melodramas against James and Wade. James is 2-2 against the duo, losing two series in Cleveland and winning two in Miami after forming the Big 3 with Wade and Chris Bosh. Wade is 2-1 against them, including the seven-game series en route to the 2012 title.
Whether it’s the scowling Garnett — who refused to even make eye contact with Ray Allen when Allen approached the Boston bench to slap palms with his old teammates last year — or the smirking Pierce, Heat fans love to hate their favorite basketball villains.
Once again, KG and “The Truth” stand in the Heat’s championship path.
“We thought we buried them,” Wade said. “They figured out a way to beat us four times [this season]. So we got to crack their code. It’s part of them being good, us being good, them not liking us for being good, we not liking them for being good.”
James called Pierce his greatest rival — until taking it back this season.
“I’ve always looked at Paul as one of the better guys that we have in our league,” James said. “He’s had the upper edge on me, and I’ve had the upper edge on him. “It’s another opportunity to see who gets the upper edge.”
Flashes of old
Garnett and Pierce showed a flash of their old 2008 championship savvy when they teamed up to preserve Brooklyn’s 104-103 Game 7 victory at Toronto on Sunday.
Garnett got a semi-strip of a driving Kyle Lowry, and Pierce rose up to block Lowry’s shot in the final seconds. Joe Johnson is Brooklyn’s best player, but Garnett and Pierce did precisely what they were hired to do on that play.
They exemplify the resourcefulness the Nets will have to tap if they are to upset the Heat in a seven-game series. Brooklyn’s 11-man depth and parade of changing situational lineups will pose a challenge to coach Erik Spoelstra. The Nets also know how to limit their opponents’ possessions, keep the score low and prevent turnovers.
Mismatches are critical during the ebb and flow of the playoffs. Pierce, Johnson and Shaun Livingston all scored above their season averages against the Heat.
Pierce and Garnett have no delusions about the obstacle they face in a more talented, fresher team.
Stats favor Heat
The Heat beat Charlotte 4-0 and earned nine days off. Statistics say teams that swept their first-round series won the second round 76 percent of the time while teams that needed seven games to win the first round won the second only 36 percent of the time, according to basketball-reference.com. Nate Silver, editor of FiveThirtyEight, crunched additional data and predicts that Miami has a 95 percent chance of beating the Nets, up from his original calculation of 88 percent after their two divergent first rounds.
Given the history between these guys, it should be closer than that, or at least interesting. Pierce would like to think of it as the beginning of a beautiful rivalry.
“They are two championships in now; they’ve grown,” he said. “This is what you’ve got to live for. You don’t take that next step of greatness until you play the best and beat the best.
“That’s why you relish these opportunities.”