The Nets barely survived their first round series against the upstart Raptors, who unleashed a rabid fan base that has been waiting years for a good team. Brooklyn could have very, very easily lost the series, and not just because Game 7 came down to the final shot. Toronto’s DeMar DeRozan came out of the gate with deer in the headlights syndrome, and Joe Johnson had to put together his best series in half a decade to carry the team into the 2nd round.
Now they will have to face the defending champs in a matchup that probably looks better for them on paper than it does in reality. The Heat lost all four of their regular season matchups against the Nets, but the postseason will be a different matter. Dwyane Wade has almost certainly enjoyed the extra week of rest since sweeping Charlotte, and LeBron James is still LeBron James.
On the other side, Johnson won’t have the same kind of advantages over Wade that he had over DeRozan, and Kevin Garnett has looked pretty stiff since he has returned from injury. He can’t exactly be counted on to anchor the defense while also having to deal with Chris Bosh, with his new-found love of threes pulling KG away from the rim.
Brooklyn has re-invented itself as an extreme spread team, breathing new life into vets Johnson and Paul Pierce by sliding them down into the forward spots and allowing their shooting, superior passing, and speed advantages to open the floor for Deron Williams and the other guards. The problem with that strategy in this series is that Miami can easily match it.
It’s time for Erik Spoelstra to employ the now-familiar tactic of playing two small forwards with Bosh at center. That will allow James to match up with either Johnson or Pierce and Bosh to handle Garnett. Shane Battier or James Jones can deal with the other forward, while Wade will be free to float off of weak shooter Shaun Livingston to clog up the passing lanes. No one on the Heat can pound the ball inside enough to warrant a scheme change from Jason Kidd, so the Heat might as well match up positionally and use their superior talent to overwhelm the Nets.
Brooklyn does have a couple of bullets left in the barrel. They can attempt to fire up the offense by starting Marcus Thornton if Miami’s manic trapping starts creating too much havoc with Livingston on the floor, although that would come at the cost of potentially huge holes in the defense. The other – and better – option that Kidd should explore is increasing the playing time of Andrei Kirilenko. He played sparingly in the Toronto series and didn’t exactly light the world on fire, but he is the type of rangy defender that could disrupt a member or two of Miami’s big three.
If Brooklyn does roll with more AK47, they’ll have a few options. His natural small forward is an unlikely fit on this team, so the logical choice would be to slot him in as a 4. He could even replace Livingston in the starting lineup, adding even more perimeter size to the team to deal with Miami’s Hall of Fame wings.
However, a more interesting twist would be to play Kirilenko at center. He can handle Bosh defensively in head-to-head matchups, and the Nets could switch everything if they wanted to without sacrificing too much size. They are surprisingly reluctant to switch even with their current lineups featuring a bunch of wings who are roughly the same size, but as the Heat start to decode the fairly simple Brooklyn defense Kidd will need to add new wrinkles.
On offense, a five-out system would be the ultimate drive and kick setup. Williams, Johnson, and Pierce could all benefit from the extra space, and Kirilenko is a very good passer in his own right.
Regardless of what strategies he uses, Kidd will need to constantly adjust to keep his team in the series, and the talent and athleticism deficit make this a tough mountain to climb for the Nets. Barring a throwback series from KG or a huge spike in Brooklyn’s made threes, the Heat will find their way into the Eastern Finals for the 4th straight season.