MIAMI - Sporting a black and red baseball cap to match his Jordan sneakers, Joe Johnson plopped down in a chair inside a conference room at the Nets' team hotel Monday, tickled about the scenario that lies in front of the Nets.
"It's a great feeling," he said. "Last year we were on the other end and having exit meetings. Now we're preparing for a second round, so this is what it's all about."
Especially given that the Nets were constructed with the Heat in mind. Four regular-season wins over the two-time defending champs by a total of 12 points showed that they not only can beat Miami but can thrive in a pressure-cooker environment. And it will get far more intense when their Eastern Conference semifinal series opens Tuesday night at AmericanAirlines Arena.
There's a sense that the Nets are playing with house money because the Heat is favored. But the Nets don't necessarily agree with that line of thinking. They understand the opportunity that's staring them in the face.
"We want to win," said Deron Williams, who revealed he had an injection in his left ankle that knocked out most of the pain after he rolled it badly in Friday's Game 6 win over the Raptors. "That's all we can say. We want to win this series. Whether there's pressure or not, we're going to come out and perform. We know these are the defending champs. They've been in these situations before and we've got to be ready. We got to be ready for the challenge every night, offensively and defensively. A lot of it's going to be mental. Just preparing well for them, sticking to our game plan and executing our game plan.''
The Nets were ready during the regular season. The trick is to beat the Heat now that the stakes have been raised.
It's a moment they've prepared for since assembling for training camp at Duke University in October. "The goal hasn't changed since the beginning of the season," Paul Pierce said. "Our goal when we came in here at the beginning was to win a championship. We understand that in order to do that, you've got to go through the best, and Miami being that team over the last couple of years, we figured this was going to be a test for us, this was going to be a series that we would have to see if we are going to accomplish our goal."
Pierce believes the Nets' depth and versatility make them somewhat unpredictable, creating difficulties for opponents scouting what aspect to focus on.
With a bevy of wing players to aid in disrupting the Heat's offenseive flow, the Nets believe they have the necessary components in place to get past Miami. That's where Pierce and Kevin Garnett enterthe equation. They've squared off against King James & Co. in 25 playoff games, with Miami holding a 13-12 edge. They're ready to enjoy a spotlight that will be shining brightly throughout the series.
Pierce added, "We love playing against the best. Obviously, the Heat the last couple of years have been the class of the NBA, and this is what you've got to live for. You've got to live for these challenges as a competitor to want to beat the best.
"So I think all the great players in this league and of years past, you don't take that next step of greatness until you play against the best and beat the best.
"So that's why you relish these opportunities."