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Saturday, November 11, 2006

Phoenix East: Nets Run to 17 Point Lead, Limp to 113-106 Loss Against Miami

The Miami Heat defeated the New Jersey Nets 113-106 on Friday but I felt like I had already seen this game on Thursday--when the Phoenix Suns took an early lead before losing to the Dallas Mavericks. New Jersey led 47-30 with 5:16 remaining in the first half but a combination of injuries, poor execution and outstanding play by Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem resulted in a second half collapse. Wade finished with 34 points, 10 assists, five rebounds and three steals, while Haslem poured in a career-high 28 points. Shaquille O'Neal returned to action after sitting out two games with a bruised left knee and contributed 13 points and six rebounds before fouling out late in the fourth quarter. Vince Carter scored 33 points for the Nets and Jason Kidd narrowly missed a triple-double (12 points, nine assists, nine rebounds). Richard Jefferson had 16 points in only 26 minutes before spraining his right ankle; the Nets said that X-rays were negative but that he will be out indefinitely.

The Nets have shown that they can match up very well with the Heat for extended stretches but this has yet to translate into many wins. New Jersey took a 1-0 lead versus Miami in last year's playoffs but lost Jefferson to injury and forward Cliff Robinson to suspension and then dropped four straight games. What New Jersey can do that is very difficult for Miami to deal with is play a wide open style, attacking the hoop for layups or kicking out to open jump shooters. The Nets raced to a 20-13 lead in the first quarter, with Carter scoring 10 of the points. Carter was forced to the bench at that point after being called for his second foul but New Jersey kept attacking and led 32-22 at the end of the quarter. The Nets could have been up even more if they had not committed five turnovers. Wade scored nine points.

The teams played evenly for the first few minutes of the second quarter. Carter returned to action at the 7:58 mark and promptly nailed a three pointer to put the Nets up 42-28. Soon the Nets were ahead by 17 and the Heat seemed to be in big trouble. Miami chipped away, though, and a James Posey three pointer with three seconds left in the half trimmed the margin to 53-43. Carter scored 15 points on 6-9 shooting in the first half, including 3-5 from three point range. Wade had 13 points and O'Neal had only seven points and four rebounds, shooting just 3-11 from the field.

New Jersey looked like the gang that couldn't shoot straight at the start of the third quarter, spraying inaccurate attempts from every angle. Meanwhile, Wade hit a sweet reverse layup and a fadeaway and assisted on a couple other shots and the Heat tied the game at 58 with 7:32 remaining. Then things really got bad for New Jersey: Richard Jefferson landed on O'Neal's foot after taking a jump shot, spraining his right ankle. He stayed in to attempt two free throws, making one, and then went to the locker room. He was limping noticeably but returned to action a couple minutes later. It quickly became apparent that he could not play and he left the game. Last year's playoffs demonstrated that the Nets are not the same team versus Miami without a healthy Jefferson. Granted, they had already squandered a lead before he got hurt but with him in the locker room they were soon down by seven points. Then, Carter cut his hand when he fell out of bounds after trying to catch a lob from Kidd. Carter left the game and returned a couple minutes later with a black wrap around his hand. With Jefferson and Carter both out of the game, Kidd looked to score and produced back to back three point plays with spectacular drives after getting defensive rebounds and going coast to coast. Miami led 76-75 at the end of the third quarter.

With Carter back in the lineup, the Nets took an 85-79 lead with 8:05 to go. Antoine Walker answered with a fadeaway and a three pointer and then Wade hit two free throws to put Miami up 86-85. Neither team went ahead by more than three until Gary Payton drilled a three pointer for a 94-90 Miami lead. Wade then stole the ball from Carter and went coast to coast for a dunk. Antoine Wright hit a three pointer to pull the Nets to within three but they could not get any closer than that the rest of the way. New Jersey tried the "Hack a Shaq" with 2:50 remaining but O'Neal hit both free throws. He fouled out on the next defensive possession, so New Jersey did not get a chance to try that strategy again. Miami's last 12 points came on free throws.

Wade is clearly the best player on the team--something that became evident even last year--but it should not be forgotten that the Heat were 42-17 in 2005-06 when O'Neal played and only 10-13 when he was out of the lineup. I like the way that TNT's Kenny Smith used to put it when Shaq and Kobe were on the same team: with Shaq around, Kobe is a great one-on-one player who gets to play one-on-one because Shaq must be doubled, whereas most other great one-on-one players get double teamed; the same is now true of Wade (Bryant showed last year that he could still score and carry a team to the playoffs even without playing alongside a legitimate post threat). O'Neal's presence eases the burden on Wade, which is not to suggest in any way that Wade is not a great player.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:13 AM

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