NBA Playoff Preview – New Jersey vs. Miami
***** NBA Playoff Preview – New Jersey vs. Miami ***** From The Sports Network
By Brian Gillespie, NBA analyst
MIAMI HEAT: 1st Seed, East (59-23)
NEW JERSEY NETS: 8th Seed, East (42-40)
(Sports Network) – When the Miami Heat pilfered Shaquille O’Neal from the Los Angeles Lakers last Summer, they did it with one thing in mind, winning their first-ever championship. Miami’s journey towards its initial title begins this weekend with a best-of-seven first round series against the red hot New Jersey Nets.
Fresh off an Eastern Conference and franchise high 59 wins, the Heat under second year head coach Stan Van Gundy seem primed for a deep playoff run. Miami, which tied for the league’s second-best record behind Phoenix, won its final three contests despite being without O’Neal (thigh bruise) in the final two tilts.
Shaq, who posted 22.9 points (12th-NBA), 10.4 rebounds (6th) and 2.3 blocks (6th) while shooting a league-best 60 percent in his inaugural campaign with the Heat, is expected to be at full strength in time for Sunday’s series opener at AmericanAirlines Arena.
O’Neal has found a comparable wingman to Kobe Bryant in Miami All-Star guard Dwyane Wade, who is in his second NBA season out of Marquette. Wade is a dual threat as he is equally capable of beating his defender off the dribble and hitting mid-range jumpers. For the season, Wade posted 24.1 points (9th) and 6.8 assists (10th) per contest.
Miami’s postseason success has been limited to a single trip to the Eastern Conference Finals in 1997, when it lost four of five games to the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls. The Heat have registered just a 3-5 mark in eight all-time first round playoff series.
New Jersey will need to re-focus itself after expending every bit of its energy in its last season push, which netted it the final playoff spot in the East. The Nets won 16 of their final 20 games, securing their playoff position on the final day of the campaign.
The big news for the Nets is that they will be getting a boost of energy for this series from the return of talented forward Richard Jefferson, who has been out since January 8 due to a ruptured ligament in his left wrist. Jefferson, a teammate of Wade’s on the 2004 Olympic team, averaged 22.2 points, 7.3 rebounds and 4.1 assists in 33 games before getting hurt.
Teaming Jefferson with Vince Carter and Jason Kidd will make the Nets a formidable opponent for the top-seeded Heat. Carter, who was acquired from Toronto in December, has been the key to the Nets’ impressive stretch run. In 57 games with the Nets, Carter has registered 30 or more points on 23 occasions. The UNC product has posted 40 or more points in five different games with New Jersey.
Kidd, one of the best playmakers in the league, should relish the opportunity of having both Jefferson and Carter on the court together. The 32-year-old recorded 14.3 points and 8.3 assists (3rd-NBA) per game this season.
New Jersey has been a postseason regular over the last four seasons, losing no earlier than the Eastern Conference Semifinals in any of the seasons. The Nets were ousted by the eventual World Champion Detroit Pistons in the semifinals last season. New Jersey hasn’t lost a first round series since being swept in three games by Chicago in 1998.
The Nets had very little success against the Heat this season, losing all three meetings by an average of 21.3 points. Miami has won five in a row over the Nets.
FRONTCOURT: While O’Neal’s numbers are impressive in the regular season, he will take on a much larger role in the postseason. Look for Miami to run its offense through Shaq on nearly every possession, as he should be able to take advantage of the Nets’ unimpressive list of centers.
Nets starting center Jason Collins has a big body to lean on Shaq, but not unlike most other players in the league he’ll be no match for Miami’s centerpiece. Collins, a seven-footer out of Stanford, will need plenty of help from his friends to slow down the Diesel.
The power forward matchup of New Jersey’s Nenad Krstic and Miami’s Udonis Haslem should be interesting. Krstic and Haslem are both vastly improved players with solid shooting abilities. While Krstic has a few inches on Haslem, the latter is stronger and should be able to push him around in the paint.
Jefferson’s return will most likely send Brian Scalabrine back to the bench and quickly improve the Nets’ frontcourt. The University of Arizona product, if fully healthy, can attack the basket and hit the long range jumper with a high rate of success. Jefferson should be able to take advantage of veteran small forward Eddie Jones in this series. Jones can still get hot on occasion, but his role in the offense has diminished in recent years.
BACKCOURT: Kidd and Carter are a backcourt duo that no opposing coaches like to the see on the hardwood. Kidd can break down the defense and force help to come, providing wide open shots for teammates like Carter. The skilled floor general presents a boatload of problems for foes, as he can also work with his back to the basket against smaller point guards.
Kidd (6-ft-4) won’t be able to back down Miami point guard Damon Jones, who stands at 6-ft-3. Damon Jones has been a pleasant surprise for the Heat this season, registering career highs in points (11.6) and three-pointers (2.7) per game. The 28-year-old has been lethal from downtown, hitting 225 treys (3rd) while shooting 43 percent (5th) from the long distance.
Carter and Wade are two of the best shooting guards in the league, but they play much different brands of basketball. This will likely lead to them matching up against other people on the defensive ends. Wade could end up covering Kidd, while Carter may be matched up against Eddie Jones. Nonetheless, both players should put up big numbers in this series.
It is hard to say that any backcourt could top the Nets’ tandem of Kidd and Carter. Wade is excellent and Damon Jones is a good shooter, but to say they are better than Kidd and Carter would be foolish.
EDGE: NEW JERSEY
BENCH: Miami has constructed one of the best benches in the league with talented players at all positions. The Heat are particularly deep in the post with Christian Laettner, Alonzo Mourning and Michael Doleac all capable of coming off the pine and contributing.
This should be an interesting series for Mourning, who began the year in New Jersey before complaining his way out in the Carter trade. Toronto eventually bought Mourning out, opening the door for him to return to Miami where he began his career. Van Gundy can rest Shaq more comfortably knowing Mourning will be on the court.
On the perimeter, the Heat have options like Keyon Dooling, Rasual Butler and veteran Shandon Anderson. Dooling, a former Los Angeles Clipper, is lightning quick to the hoop much like Wade.
New Jersey’s bench will be improved with either Jefferson or Scalabrine on it. Scalabrine took advantage of his increased role towards the end of the regular season, posting double digit scoring in six of the final eight games.
The Nets may be able to use reserve center Clifford Robinson, who they got from Golden State during the season, to lure Shaq out of the lane on occasion. Robinson is a much better perimeter shooter than post-up player.
Nets veteran point guard Travis Best, a former member of the Heat, will see his fair share of minutes in this series as well. Best tallied 6.8 points and 1.9 assists per game during the regular season.
COACH: Don’t be fooled by Nets head coach Lawrence Frank’s boyish looks, he is all business. Frank is a workaholic who spends a large amount of hours studying film and coming up with game plans. The former interim coach has done a masterful job infusing Carter into the New Jersey offense. However, the young head man has only been through the playoff ringer once in his career.
Van Gundy, the brother of Houston coach Jeff Van Gundy, had his load lightened considerably when Riley acquired Shaq. Since a 5-15 start last season, Van Gundy has guided Miami to a 96-48 mark — a .667 winning percentage. However, his playoff experience is limited to Miami’s two-round run last year.
PREDICTION: The Nets burned a large amount of energy just getting to the postseason and that will play into Miami’s hands. Also, New Jersey has been dominated all season long by Miami. While regular season meetings have little impact on the postseason, it is clear that this matchup doesn’t favor the Nets. Barring an amazing effort from Carter, Jefferson and Kidd, this series should be over in no more than six games.
MIAMI IN SIXNJN MIA