After taking down the Orlando Magic in sloppy fashion, the Brooklyn Nets swing to South Beach tonight to take on the reigning NBA champion Miami Heat. The Nets, riding a five-game winning streak, will see that streak tested tonight- the Heat dismantled the Nets to the tune of 103-73 in their last meeting, and Brook Lopez will sit for the second straight game to rest his right foot.
Joining me to talk tonight's teams and matchup is Tom Haberstroh of ESPN's Heat Index, one of the smartest hoops writers around and someone who's covered this Miami Heat team since LeBron James joined it in 2010. I've asked Tom three questions on the Heat, and he's asked me three on the Brooklyn Nets.
Tom Haberstroh on the Miami Heat
Devin: Brook Lopez is out for tonight's game. The Nets already had a minor chance at best at stealing this road game; would you say that chance is all but eliminated now?
Tom: Did you catch Thursday's game against the JV Spurs? As long as the Heat keep defending like cardboard cutouts, the local YMCA's finest has a chance at beating the Heat. Lopez can score, but it wasn't like he was a huge factor when the Heat steamrolled the Nets in Game 1 of this regular season series. I really don't think Brooklyn will shoot 3-for-21 from downtown and 10-for-17 from the charity stripe again. Deron Williams didn't look right either. I almost feel like we should throw out that game, honestly.
Devin: Have there been any significant alterations to how the Heat play this season from last year, or is it just a continuation of last year's championship formula?
Tom: The Heat basically traded Joel Anthony for Ray Allen. That pretty much sums it up. The Heat have basically turned into the "Seven Seconds or Less" Suns at this point and abandoned their spot as a top-five defense. Erik Spoelstra's trying to see if the small-ball (or speed-ball as he likes to call it) can work over the long haul, but Shane Battier's injury is making it hard to do that.
Also, Dwyane Wade hasn't really been himself because of a foot injury so it's hard to make an appraisal on Spoelstra's plan. They're trying to play fast, but they're not fully healthy and the comfort factor with Allen and Rashard Lewis isn't quite there yet. In the playoffs though when Wade and LeBron James are keyed in defensively? Yikes.
Devin: Much of the Heat's success during their championship run came from their hounding, all-athlete-all-the-time defense, but they've fallen from 4th in the NBA in defensive efficiency last season to 23rd this year. Is it just too small a sample size to draw conclusions from, or are there real issues?
Tom: As I touched on in the last answer, Joel Anthony's demotion is a big deal. And it's hard to defend the paint when the perimeter defenders are getting whiplash (Looking at you, Ray) from blow-bys. Without a paint clogging big man, the Heat's wings are forced to play big and it's spread their defense pretty thin. It's still early but a 23rd-ranked defense even on Dec. 1 is far too low for the Heat and the superstars on this squad. They know they can do better, but they're also preserving themselves for the marathon.
Devin on the Brooklyn Nets
Tom: Who's PER feels more like an aberration: Brook Lopez' 24.0 or Joe Johnson's 13.9? Andray Blatche's 21.2 or Stack's 18.1?
Devin: For the first one, Joe Johnson without question. Lopez hasn't played out of his skin or wildly above his abilities. He's not hitting shots he shouldn't be hitting, or getting lucky. He's just playing smart offensive basketball -- scoring in the post as effectively as he can, while still getting those little easy shots set up for him by Deron Williams. If anything, his PER's a bit low because he's shot well below his capabilities from the free throw line (just 64% this season, career 80% before this year). Johnson shot poorly when the season started, and his PER's a reflection of those struggles -- he's begun to find his stroke more and I expect his PER to adjust upwards into his standard 18-19 range accordingly.
As for the bench mobbers: that's a tougher one, but I'll go with Blatche. Though Blatche has been a complete revelation, finally playing like an NBA player after toiling in Washington, 21.3 is still high for him. Stackhouse's PER is more a reflection of his role on the floor and in founding the Industrial Revolution: he sits in the corner, lies in wait for the inevitable defensive breakdown, hits threes, and saves the country from the brink of economic destruction. That's it. As long as he does that, his PER should stick in that range.
Tom: What's the Brooklyn fan experience like at Barclays? Do you like the BS-sounding "Broooooklyyyyyn" chant?
Devin: It's astounding. I've been asked this a few times now, but it still excites me to write about it. I've been to plenty of Nets games over the years where nobody -- and I mean nobody -- engaged the game. When the Knicks came to East Rutherford or Newark, it was a home game. Hell, when Miami came to Newark, it was a home game. Now, scattered M-V-P chants for Carmelo Anthony get drowned out by a chorus of boos and Brooklyn chants. It's mind-blowing.
Which brings me to The Brooklyn Chant. You're right about the cadence, it makes it seem derisive yet powerful and emotional all at once. It's my absolute favorite chant, as long as it's used in the right moments. When the fans try to get it going in the middle of a meaningless second quarter moment, it sounds scattered and mistaken. But when the entire crowd knows it's the sixth man, when the Nets are trying to get a stop or get a rally going in the fourth quarter, Barclays Center AKA The Black House swells, and Brooklyn booms in a way Newark never, ever did.
Tom: Has the surrounding talent made Deron Williams look better or worse this season compared to last season?
Devin: Split the difference: he's looked worse, while everyone else has looked better. He's one of the major catalysts for Brook Lopez's surge, and his presence has gotten open looks galore for everyone. Even Joe Johnson's struggles came on open shots. But like Johnson was, Williams is just not hitting his shots. I'm not sure if it's a wrist problem, or an arm problem, or a thigh problem, or a Deron problem, but it's a problem. He hasn't really been the marksman he was in Utah for a consistent stretch yet since he's been a Nets player. All of his on-the-ground moves are there -- the dirty crossovers, the quick step moves, and the no-look, one-handed passes -- but his shot just hasn't fallen.