MIAMI -- Midweek games midway through March don’t usually generate this kind of buzz from the Miami Heat.
But this one is different.
This one is against the Brooklyn Nets, who visit AmericanAirlines Arena on Wednesday (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET) as the only NBA team to beat the Heat at least twice without a loss this season. One sign of how serious Miami is taking this matchup came when LeBron James interrupted a reporter in the process of pointing out the Nets' 2-0 regular-season mark against Miami.
“Well, 3-0 if you count the preseason,” James shot back. “We look forward to playing them.”
Yes, even the two-time defending champions still have certain opponents circled on their calendar as potential measuring sticks that could play out in the postseason. Coming into the season, no team caught the Heat’s attention like the Indiana Pacers, who have targeted the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference and maintain a slight lead in the standings over second-place Miami with a month left until the playoffs.
The Chicago Bulls, of course, have been a longtime nemesis for the Heat -- even with their injury issues.
But Brooklyn also generated its share of noise early when first-year coach Jason Kidd told reporters last summer that the Nets “have the horses” with a reloaded roster to contend with the Heat. Then, a combination of injuries, a rift within Kidd’s staff and chemistry issues derailed the Nets and doused much of the enthusiasm that accompanied the offseason arrival of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce.
But since losing 21 of their first 31 games, the Nets have gone 22-9 to post the best record in the conference since Jan. 1. Perhaps no team in the league more than Miami appreciates the initial growing pains that come with assembling a high-profile roster amid a championship-or-bust scenario.
And the Nets are going through the process with a much older core of Garnett, Pierce and Joe Johnson than the Heat did when James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh came together all in their primes in 2010.
“We know how difficult it is to come together with high expectations,” Bosh said of the Heat, who stumbled to a 9-8 start during the 2010-11 season before ultimately losing to Dallas in the NBA Finals. “You knew it was only a matter of time before they figured it out. They have a very good veteran group. We owe these guys. We haven’t beaten them yet. We need this win on Wednesday.”
The Heat (44-17) hope to use this week’s four-game homestand to rebound from last week’s three-game losing streak that featured James’ most prolonged slump of the season. Miami began the recovery process with Monday’s 99-90 win against the Wizards, a game in which James, Bosh and Wade combined to account for 67 points, 19 rebounds and 15 assists. It was only the fifth time this season that James, Wade and Bosh each finished with at least 20 points in the same game.
But defense and rebounding have been far greater concerns for the Heat. Over the past four games, Miami has been outrebounded by an average of 11 boards. Against the Wizards, the Heat overcame a 50-33 disadvantage on the glass by scoring 22 points off 19 turnovers and holding Washington to just two field goals over the final 5:43 of the game.
Spoelstra has challenged to Heat “get back to our identity” by addressing some concerns that have plagued the team in recent weeks. Slow starts and sluggish finishes were also a recent problem. Getting James on the attack and back to the free throw line is also a priority. James hasn’t attempted a free throw for two straight games for the first time since his rookie season.
James said he’s “very surprised” he hasn’t gotten calls to go in his favor despite aggressively driving into the lane the past two games. Spoelstra said he wouldn’t campaign to officials, but that he was confident the results would come if James continued to play his customary game.
“Can we work on things that failed us yesterday and do a better job of it today?” Spoelstra said of the daily approach to correcting some of the issues. “That’s growth. It’s good character to be able to respond like that. Hopefully we can continue.”
The Nets (32-30) also look to extend their recent surge, a push that has been boosted by the trade deadline acquisition of scoring guard Marcus Thornton to help off the bench. Brooklyn has won two in a row and six of its past seven games, a stretch that has coincided with Garnett sitting out the past six games with back spasms. Garnett reportedly didn’t make the trip to Miami for Wednesday’s game, and the Nets forward Andrei Kirilenko is questionable with a sore ankle.
Kidd’s handling of his veterans -- reducing minutes and extending nights off amid nagging injuries -- has been similar to the Heat’s approach, specifically with Wade, this season. Brooklyn is 7-6 this season without Garnett, who is averaging a career-low 21 minutes a game. Pierce is also averaging a career-low 13.2 points, but the Nets have maintained a focus on keeping both healthy for the postseason.
“I can appreciate it,” Wade said of the Nets' long-range outlook. “Everybody’s got a maintenance plan. Ours is the only one talked about. At this point, you’ve got a veteran team you’ve got to do things you need to do. They’ve done a good job resting guys. It’s a big picture for certain teams. We’re one of them, they’re one of them, and the Spurs are one of them. We’re older guys, and it works for us.”
The Nets have steadied themselves after some early turbulence.
But Kidd suggested from the outset that his team might follow the Heat’s blueprint.
“When the Heat were put together, there was talk of going undefeated,” Kidd sarcastically said last July. “They didn’t get off to a great start, but they found a way to win back-to-back championships. We’re not the Miami Heat, but we [also] feel that we can compete at a high level. With that being said, there’s going to be a lot of eyes on us.”
With Brooklyn currently in position to be a potential second-round playoff opponent, the Nets have the Heat’s complete attention heading into the season’s stretch run.
“They should,” James said. “Talent doesn’t always win, but they’re playing great basketball right now.”