BROOKLYN — Poor Nets.
They played the Miami Heat three times this season, and all three times, the defending champs were engaged, focused or motivated. Pick whichever of those three words you prefer to describe the way the Heat have played only some of the time this season.
The Heat completed a three-game season sweep on Wednesday in Brooklyn, blowing out the Nets in the third quarter on their way to a 105-85 victory. They won the three meetings by an average of 21 points and LeBron James has now won 17 straight games against the team owned by his friend Jay-Z.
So the Nets never got to see the Heat team that shows up at the arena and mostly goes through the motions, the team that knows it can flip the switch in the postseason, or the team that seems happy with just a game-and-a-half lead in the Eastern Conference.
The Knicks, the team trailing the Heat, saw that Heat team two times already, once in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and once when they were missing Carmelo Anthony. The Spurs, similarly, saw that Heat team when they decided to send four players home before that TNT game back in November. And the Celtics, missing Rajon Rondo, saw that Heat team on Sunday.
Yes, the Heat are in first place. But should they really be 11-10 on the road? Should they really rank 11th in defensive efficiency and allowing 4.3 more points per 100 possessions than they did last season?
The Heat have the best player in the world, two more All-Stars and maybe the best shooter in NBA history. And they’ve been relatively healthy all season. Yet, they’re barely ahead of a New York team that went 8-10 from Dec. 17 to Jan. 26 and has missed countless games to injury.
A championship team on cruise control through the regular season is nothing new. But it’s still OK to be a little disappointed in how the Heat have played this season.
“We understand that 10-10 on the road is not to our potential,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said before his team picked up road win No. 11 on Wednesday. “But we’ll have many opportunities to correct that in the second half.”
Sometimes, as it was on Sunday, the problem has been offense.
“Turnovers are the key,” Shane Battier said. “Everyone wants to kill us for rebounding, and our numbers are poor. No question. But that’s not the barometer of our success. The turnover battle is the end-all, be-all for us. When we get extra possessions and we limit giving away extra possessions, we’re going to score. We’re a high-efficiency offensive team.”
Indeed, the Heat are 17-2 when they’ve committed 13 turnovers or less. They had 21 in Boston on Sunday, their second-worst offensive game of the season in terms of efficiency. They were much sharper against the Nets.
But defense has been the larger problem. The Heat ranked fourth defensively last season and are 11th this year. Only four teams have regressed more defensively.
The Heat are at their best when they’re active and aggressive defensively, using their speed and athleticism to its fullest. And maybe it’s just not possible to play elite defense like that for 82 games. But a little more defensive effort could give them the cushion they need in case they do suffer an injury or two in February or March.
“It just required concentration, and our concentration has not been great, especially on the road,” Battier said. “Everyone knows the system here. It’s not a matter of ignorance. It’s a matter of effort and concentration. When we’re dialed in and supply that concentration, we’re a pretty darn good defensive team. When we don’t, we’re pretty porous.”
On Wednesday, the Heat proved that, when they’re “dialed in,” they’re in a class above the Nets, who had the league’s No. 1 offense in January before they were held under a point per possession by the champs.
“I think we were really aggressive against these guys all three times, both offensively and defensively,” Battier said. “It was good to see tonight on the road. We haven’t been this aggressive on the road in a while. We really attacked them and tried to take them out of their sets.”
On Friday, the Heat visit the Pacers, the team that held them to a season-low 77 points in Indiana in early January. It’s a second-straight opportunity to take one of the East’s season-tier teams and knock them down a peg. So it will be interesting to see which Heat team shows up.
For the Nets, no matter how much success they’ve had under P.J. Carlesimo and no matter what they do over their last 36 games, they’ll know that they haven’t been able to hang with the champs. Knowing that there’s no avoiding the Heat in the playoffs, they should have treated this like their most important game of the season. Maybe they did, and maybe they just caught the Heat on the wrong day … again.
“In any sport, you measure yourself up against the champions, and they are the champions,” Gerald Wallace told Newsday. “They’ve embarrassed us all three times, so what does that say for us as a team trying to be a championship team?”