The Miami Heat are preparing to defend their title for a second consecutive postseason, beginning their run against the surprising Charlotte Bobcats on Sunday, April 20 in South Beach.
Despite impressing the NBA world with a 43-win campaign, Steve Clifford's gritty group will need to play its best basketball yet in order to truly compete with the defending champions.
Still, Miami isn't hosting a foe as weak as it did in last year's first-round set versus the Milwaukee Bucks. Nor is it entering as the conference's top seed or resembling a championship-caliber team of late. The Heat finished the season winning only two of their final eight contests, while Charlotte won eight of its final nine regular-season games.
The Heat will tip off the series as overwhelming favorites, but if they fail to respect the Cats' intimidating defense, we may just have a fun series on our hands.
Seeds: Charlotte Bobcats No. 7; Miami Heat No. 2
Records: Charlotte Bobcats 43-39; Miami Heat 52-28
Season Series: Miami Heat Beat Charlotte Bobcats 4-0
Schedule for Series: Game 1, Sunday, April 20, 3:30 p.m. ET (ABC); Game 2, Wednesday, April 23, 7 p.m. (TNT); Game 3, Saturday, April 26, 7 p.m. (ESPN); Game 4, Monday, April 29, 7 p.m. (TNT); Game 5, Wednesday, April 30, Time TBD (TBD); Game 6, Friday, May 2, Time TBD (TBD); Game 7, Sunday, May 4, Time TBD (TBD)
Games 5-7 only if necessary
Key Storyline for Charlotte Bobcats
The 2013-14 season was set to be another disappointing one for Charlotte, in its final campaign under the decade-old, negatively connotated Bobcats moniker.
It was entrusting a clunky roster—coming off a 61-loss season—to a rookie head coach and had just thrown what seemed like an absurd amount of cash at a not-so-highly regarded free agent in Al Jefferson.
After a slow start—the Bobcats sat at just 19-27 in late January—the pieces started to take form into a cohesive whole. As a result, Clifford has garnered Coach of the Year consideration, and the team's defense finished the season as the league's sixth-best, according to NBA.com (subscription required).
|NBA's Best Defensive Efficiencies for 2013-14 Reg. Season|
|Rank||Team||Points allowed per 100 possessions|
And that purported albatross signing? It's safe to say Big Al has turned his career in the right direction.
In the first season of a three-year, $41 million deal, Jefferson posted his best true-shooting percentage—which takes three-point and free-throw shooting into account—since his 23-year-old season at .532. His assist and defensive rebound percentages were the best of his career, and he was one of five players this season to average 20 points and 10 rebounds. According to ESPN.com, his 22.9 player efficiency rating is good for second among centers who logged 20 games this year.
There were efficiency concerns on offense, but the more prevalent concerns at the time of the signing were about Jefferson's defense. Last season, with the Utah Jazz, the center's team allowed nearly 10 points fewer per 100 possessions with him off the court. According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), Jefferson was among the league's worst defenders across several categories.
Under Clifford, while he hasn't been a plus on that end, he's been nowhere near the liability he was in years past. As a product of the improvement on D, Jefferson was a net positive on the floor for just the third time in his career, according to Basketball-Reference.
|Al Jefferson Defensive Comparison: 2012-13 vs. 2013-14|
|Year||Overall PPP allowed (rank)||Post-up PPP allowed (rank)||P&R roll-man PPP allowed (rank)||On/off-court team points allowed differential|
|'12-13||0.9 (279th)||0.79 (101st)||0.94 (82nd)||-9.8|
|'13-14||0.81 (64th)||0.73 (44th)||0.74 (14th)||-1.0|
The stark upswing in defending as a 'Cat can be credited to the team's coaching staff—not just the defensive-minded Clifford but assistant Patrick Ewing, as well. Jefferson explained a conversation he had with the former All-Star center, according to Bleacher Report's Jared Zwerling: "(Ewing) said that he felt like I could be a superstar in this league, but I've got to do it on both ends."
Clifford detailed the transformation a bit more in the Zwerling article:
One, he has a natural feel for the game, so decision-making on defense is similar in a lot of ways to offense. People always look at guys and say, 'The guy knows when to shoot, when to pass and when to drive. He's a good decision-maker.' And the same thing is true defensively—when to help, when not to help, how much to help.
And then I think the biggest part of it, to be honest, is that it was important to him—and you could see this in training camp—to not be a problem defensively. He did not want to be the issue, so he's worked hard on it and I think Patrick's helped him a lot.
Another Bobcat who has made a drastic improvement across the board is Kemba Walker, who has posted a net rating of plus-8.7—a career high by a long shot.
According to 82games, he's held his opponents to an effective field-goal percentage of 48.5. Per Synergy, he's cut down from 0.91 points per play allowed in isolation last season to 0.71 this year. He's allowed just 38 percent shooting to pick-and-roll ball-handlers, as well. This is all to go along with his already established offensive prowess—he ranks 17th among qualified players in isolation, netting 1.01 points per play.
All this defense will undoubtedly come into play against Miami, but will it be enough to stun the league's fourth-best offense?
Against Charlotte's sixth-ranked defense, Miami managed to put up an astonishing 117 points per 100 possessions, which would lead one to believe the Heat simply have Charlotte's number in this regard. Well, maybe, but there are some things working in the Bobcats' favor.
Three of Miami's four wins against the Bobcats took place on or before Jan. 18, while the team was still searching for a winning recipe—they were still outside the playoff picture at the time of that third loss at 17-25. The fourth loss came on March 3, and it was Charlotte's third game in four nights—all on the road—with the previous two games coming against San Antonio and OKC. That kind of fatigue won't be an issue in a postseason series.
The Heat are among the league's best at scoring from in close—they make nearly 65 percent of their shots within 5 feet—but the Bobcats rank fifth in the NBA in opponent field-goal percentage in that range, with a mark of 52.4 percent.
It'll be hard to account for the human freight train wearing the No. 6 jersey—LeBron James has averaged 37 points against them this season, including the legendary 61-point showing on March 3. But they'll need to contain Miami the best they can if they want a chance at making this a long series. If the defense doesn't get the job done, don't count on the team's 24th-ranked offense to do much damage on its own.
Key Storyline for Miami Heat
The Heat haven't been among the hottest teams down the regular season's home stretch, but they aren't ones to seem overly concerned about it. Certainly not Dwyane Wade, who played in only 54 games this season.
The 32-year-old guard told The Washington Post's Jason Reid: "We’re a team that has been there three years in a row and trying to go for four years in a row now. I think we’ve done okay. Could we do better? You always can do better. But we’ve done a pretty decent job."
The Heat won just three games in April, and only one of those victories came against a team above .500—the equally discombobulated Indiana Pacers. This month, according to NBA.com, they've barely outscored their opponents on average—by just 0.2 points per 100 possessions. They've allowed 48 percent shooting from the field, including 40 percent from deep.
With a top-two seed essentially locked up for months, it's easy to chalk Miami's late struggles up to indifference. For three years now, the Heat have seemingly been able to flip the switch when need be, almost instantly reverting back to powerhouse mode in time for the most meaningful minutes.
The question looming over this year's Heat group, though, is whether three consecutive runs to the NBA Finals will finally take a toll—especially for LeBron James, who logged more minutes this season than he has in any of his Miami campaigns.
In a Heat uniform, James has logged more than 14,000 minutes, including the postseason—and that isn't yet counting this year's playoff burn. The Heat have participated in 67 playoff games since the 2011 postseason, LeBron averaging 43 minutes per postseason contest.
Last year's team, in particular, endured back-to-back seven-game series to cap off a championship run, with two of the 14 games going into overtime.
The last team to successfully three-peat was the Los Angeles Lakers in 2000, 2001 and 2002. Los Angeles is also the franchise that's come the closest in recent memory, winning back-to-back rings in 2009 and 2010.
Similar to Miami's current scenario, the 2008 Lakers team also trekked all the way to the Finals, losing in six games to the Boston Celtics. In 2011, Los Angeles' attempt at a fourth consecutive Finals appearance, the Lakers were swept in four games by the Dallas Mavericks in the second round.
That '11 Lakers contrast from these Heat in that they were headlined by a 32-year-old Kobe Bryant and a 30-year-old Pau Gasol, while Miami has a 29-year-old LeBron at its disposal, who's much more of a physical specimen than Kobe ever was. Chris Bosh is also 29 and at the peak of his prime, while Wade will be a giant question mark through the playoffs.
The Heat know what they're facing. This road to the NBA Finals should be Miami's easiest yet, given the weakness of its competition. But whether it'll succumb to the stress and fatigue that a four-year run at the top brings about is what will decide Miami's 2014 fate.
There's guaranteed to be at least one Bobcat salivating at this first-round matchup, and it's okay if you had no idea he was even on the Bobcats this season.
Former San Antonio Spurs guard Gary Neal, who shot the three-ball at a 47 percent clip during the Finals against Miami last season, averages 23 minutes per game for Charlotte after coming over from Milwaukee at the trade deadline.
Neal has made his living this season from the right wing, where he's shot around 50 percent.
In that zone this season, the Heat have defended around the league average. Though in last year's playoffs, the team let 39.5 percent of right-wing threes fall—in no small part due Neal's dominance from that area then, as well (shot chart links via NBA.com, subscription required).
On the Miami side, the Heat's best secondary form of attack could be hitting the Bobcats where they least expect it: in the paint.
Chris Andersen has the potential to make an impact in this series—he averaged 12 points, 10 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per 36 minutes this season as a reserve. The 35-year-old shot a career-best 64 percent from the field, with 162 of his 177 field goals coming at the rim.
On the season, the 'Cats have defended the rim exceptionally—just not against the Heat. Charlotte allowed Miami to nail 64 percent of its shots within 5 feet this season, which is roughly 12 percent higher than what it allowed all year.
Birdman usually runs with the Heat's second unit, which means a good chunk of his minutes could come with Al Jefferson, Charlotte's best rebounder, resting. That could play hugely to Miami's advantage. Over the teams' meetings this season, Andersen has grabbed 27 percent of available defensive rebounds while Jefferson is on the bench, but 13 percent while battling against him (via NBA.com).
It'll take proper Erik Spoelstra rotations, but the Birdman has a chance to bust the Bobcats' only true advantage.
For Charlotte to stand a chance in this set, Al Jefferson will need to perform at his highest level. He'll be paired up against one of the league's most effective players at his position in Miami's Chris Bosh.
That new and improved defense of Big Al's we talked about earlier? He'll need to put that on display in order to keep Bosh at bay. Bosh set a new career high in true-shooting percentage this season at 59.7 percent and shot a respectable 34 percent from three-point range. He also shot almost 150 more threes than any season in his career.
Bosh manages to make more of a killing from just inside the arc, where he makes jumpers at a 49 percent success rate. To put that into better context, Grantland's Kirk Goldsberry ran this graphic, following Bosh's failed last-second attempt in this range:
Jefferson will need to stray from the paint to guard Bosh, something he's had trouble with this season. According to Synergy, Jefferson has allowed better than 0.9 points per play to spot-up shooters, allowing 43 percent shooting overall and a 36 percent clip from downtown. If Bosh establishes his jumper early on, it could be a long series for Al and the Bobcats.
Where Jefferson does have the advantage in this matchup, though, is closer to the basket. That's where nearly 60 percent of his attempts come from, and of the 52 players who face at least six rim attempts per game, Bosh ranks an unimpressive 36th in field-goal percentage allowed.
Jefferson grabbed 28 percent of the available defensive boards when he was on the floor this year, compared to Bosh's 20 percent. Both players posted similar offensive rebounding percentage numbers, Jefferson with 6.7 percent and Bosh with 5.1.
The 'Cats will need Michael Kidd-Gilchrist to hang close enough with LeBron James to derail him occasionally and will rely on Kemba Walker for most scoring out of the backcourt. But if Jefferson doesn't win the battle against Bosh every night, Charlotte's odds of victory will be microscopic.
The Bobcats had a better run in 2013-14 than anybody could've reasonably predicted, but their fun stretch will likely come to a swift end in this series.
It's unfortunate that, with just one more win, they'd have qualified for sixth place, miss out on the Heat altogether and have a legitimate shot at the franchise's first win in a postseason series. But the circumstances are what they are, and the 'Cats will act as the first bump in Miami's road toward a three-peat.
That's not to say this doesn't have the potential to be an entertaining series; with a few bounces of the ball—a few Kemba Walker hot streaks or maybe a Dwyane Wade knee flare-up—the Bobcats can probably take a game from Miami. They almost did just that on Dec. 1 in South Beach, when they carried a double-digit lead into the final period. Thirty-eight fourth-quarter Heat points later, Miami handed Charlotte a 99-98 defeat.
The two groups have come a long way since then—Miami was 14-3, Charlotte 8-10 at the time. The Heat have endured another walk-in-the-park regular season, and Clifford's Bobcats have established themselves as a legitimate contending group as the franchise ushers itself into a newly branded era next season.
Miami just remains too talented to lose four times in this series. Not with Charlotte's 26th-ranked offense. Not with LeBron James in a Heat jersey.
Heat win series 4-1