By Lang Whitaker, NBA.com
MIAMI — Heat coach Erik Spoelstra entered the American Airlines Arena interview room 90 minutes before tipoff of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals and plopped down at the table.
“All of our guys are available,” Spoelstra said, by way of a pre-empting any questions about injuries.
The floor was then opened for questions, and for 14 seconds the room was as silent as a wake. Finally, with no queries coming, Spoelstra gave a fist pump as he hopped up and walked out of the room.
Honestly, what was left to be said? The Heat had been doing nothing but talking and tuning into other games on TV for the last week since eliminating the Charlotte Bobcats in four games back on April 28. (The monitors flanking Spoelstra in the interview room still displayed the box score from the Heat’s last home game, Game 2 against the Bobcats played way back on April 23.)
Back in live action, the Heat were happy to let their play do the talking, as they put together a dominant performance, winning Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semis against the Brooklyn Nets going away, 107-86.
If they needed a cautionary tale, they didn’t have far to look: Just one season ago, the Heat also had an eight-day break between the first and second rounds. They took on a Bulls team coming off a draining seven-game series, then lost at home to Chicago, 93-86. If the Heat had had any rust from the layoff, they scraped it away well before tipoff and played Game 1 like they were on the second half of a back-to-back.
“It wasn’t easy,” said Chris Bosh, who finished with 15 points and 11 boards. “I was surprised that we did have good rhythm after such a long break. We did not have that last year. I kept saying all week that we felt that we were going to attack this situation better this time. And I think we did.”
“I think the most important thing was the rhythm that we were in,” said LeBron James, who led the Heat with 22 points. “It seemed like we didn’t take much time off at all as far as our rhythm. Ten turnovers, 22 assists, 52 points in the paint — that’s us playing basketball. We didn’t get to the free throw line a lot, but we got to the paint. After eight days off of not playing a game, I feared the rhythm, but now I don’t have to fear it anymore. After the way we played tonight, that’s a step in the direction we want to keep going in.”
“You could see the ball movement on most possessions — moving it two or three passes to find a better shot,” Spoelstra said. “It’s a little bit more to our rhythm and our momentum on how we like to play.”
The Heat talked about their performance like they were speaking of a percussion concert — rhythm, rhythm, rhythm. To make sure the Heat came out on fire, the Heat players credited the coaching staff for keeping them focused throughout the break by mostly pitting them against each other.
“The coaching staff made sure we … went at it in practice,” Rashard Lewis said with a smile. “We got a lot of conditioning in the first few practices, but the last couple of practices we started scrimmaging, we played up and down. And we’re a competitive bunch. We was going at it. Both teams wanted to win, we did a two-minutes drill a couple of times. As teammates, we went at each other and it was almost like a game atmosphere in the practice gym.”
The Heat played a complete game against Brooklyn. Not only did they make nine 3s, but they dominated the interior. In each of the first two quarters, the Heat attempted 10 shots in the paint, building a 26-10 lead in the stat by halftime. They finished with 52 points in the paint, which accounted for 26 field goals made, two less makes than the Nets attempted in the paint.
“We couldn’t protect the paint there to start the game,” said Nets coach Jason Kidd. “Well … during the whole game, we couldn’t keep them out of the paint. That’s something we have to look at and get better at.”
“Just mistakes,” explained Kevin Garnett, who finished with no points and four rebounds in just 16 minutes. “When we made mistakes, they made us pay for it. Back-cuts, coming to the basket, being very aggressive. We need to tear a page out of their book and be as aggressive next game.”
“I think it started on defense,” said Rashard Lewis. “We get stops and we get out, and we spread the court with our shooters, and it gives those lanes for LeBron and Dwyane [Wade] to drive. I thought early in the game we made sure that guys like LeBron and D-Wade were posting up, and we tried to take advantage of different matchups.
“It helps up get into a good rhythm on the offensive end,” Lewis continued. “Instead of just catching and launching 3s, we attacked their defense, make their defense collapse, and throw it out for open shots or for another drive.”
Not everything was rosy for the Heat. For a team that loves to play with pace, the Heat finished with just four fast-break points, as well as a season-low four steals. But they also finished with just 10 turnovers, three fewer than the Nets. And the Nets got worthy performances from Deron Williams and Joe Johnson, who each finished with 17 points. But they were the only Brooklyn starters to crack double-digits.
Sure, the Nets won four straight against the Heat in the regular season, but after one game in the postseason, the Heat go to sleep Tuesday night holding a one-game lead in their series.
And right now, that’s the only streak that matters.