NBA Playoffs Preview: Heat vs. Bobcats
In the 2–7 matchup in the Eastern Conference, we have the two-time defending champions Miami Heat facing an inexperienced Charlotte Bobcats squad. Miami will begin their journey for a third Larry O’Brien trophy against the Bobcats, who are making the postseason for just the second time in franchise history.
The last time the Bobcats made the playoffs was during the 2009-2010 season, where they were swept by the Magic - they're still looking for that first playoff victory. This season, the Bobcats increased their total wins from last year by 22 and had their best division finish in franchise history. A lot of the credit goes to rookie head coach Steve Clifford, who joined the team after serving as an assistant with the Lakers. It also helped - just a little - when they signed big man Al Jefferson to a three-year, $41-million contract in the offseason. Jefferson gave them a much needed reliable post-scoring option, and Clifford helped bring back that tough-nosed defensive mentality that the team lacked the past several seasons. Together, they provided Charlotte with quality basketball that hadn't been seen since the Larry Brown days.
Enter the Miami Heat, crusher of hopes and destroyers of dreams. Sure, the Bobcats had a wonderful season, but now they're running into a buzz saw of a basketball team that finished first in the Southeast Division for the fourth consecutive year. On top of that, the Heat have beaten the Bobcats in 16 straight games, and there is a high likelihood that number reaches 20 after this postseason.
Miami touts the fifth best offensive efficiency at 110.9, and the Bobcats hold the fifth-best mark in defensive efficiency at 103.8. In the past, we have seen this Miami Heat team play some ferocious defense, but it has slipped a bit this season as they are only 11th in defensive efficiency at 105.8, down from 103.7 last season. Despite the drop off, we can expect that LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade are still hungry and will get back to doing what made them two-time champions.
Miami Heat (2)
Championship Odds: 17.8%
Charlotte Bobcats (7)
Championship Odds: .9%
Regular Season Series – Heat 4, Bobcats 0
These division foes met four times during the regular season in 2013-2014, and the Heat weren't feeling generous, sweeping the Bobcats in the season series. The average margin of victory for Miami was 10.5 points, and the most recent matchup played in early March yielded a LeBron James career-high and Miami Heat franchise record 61 points on an absurd 22 for 33 shooting and 8 of 10 from three-point range. That last game bumped LeBron’s series averages to a whopping 37.8 points on 63% shooting from the field and 56% from three. We didn’t see much of Dwyane Wade however, as he only played in two of the matchups and played 22 and 34 minutes, the latter resulting in a one point victory at home.
The first game of the series where Wade played limited minutes excluded Bobcats’ leading scorer Al Jefferson. In the three games he played, Big Al averaged 25.3 points and 15.8 rebounds, compared to season averages of 21.8 points and 10.8 rebounds. Similar to LeBron, Jefferson had his way with the Heat defense in the final meeting, going off to the tune of 38 points and 19 rebounds on an insane 18 for 24 shooting display. He’s going to have to do similar things in order for the Bobcats to steal a game or two, who will also require a bigger contribution from Kemba Walker, because the 15.5 points per game on 38.2% shooting he posted against the Heat this season are not going to cut it. Individual defensive matchups are going to be critical in this series as well and while Chris Bosh has struggled to contain Al Jefferson, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist will have his hands full with reigning MVP LeBron James.
How the Heat Can Win
This series may allow LeBron the luxury of continued coasting, assuming that's a real thing. In all seriousness though, I fully expect the Heat to get down to brass tacks and take care of business and dispose of the rugged Bobcats swiftly. In order to do so, they need to enforce their will and that means turning turnovers into transition points, attacking the paint and getting corner three-point shots.
The Heat are entering the postseason as the best shooting team in the NBA at 50.1%, doing so by hitting a staggering 64.4% in the paint (8 feet or less), and 44.6% from the right corner (24-plus feet). This is all due to the penetration of LeBron James and his ability to finish or kick it out to guys like Ray Allen and Chris Bosh. Bosh carried a greater offensive load with Wade missing time and has been very reliable all season long. Bosh’s series averages of 17.3 points and 6.5 boards on 57.4% shooting tell us that, like James, the Bobcats have struggled to defend him. He has made notable contributions to the Heat’s league leading eFG% (effective field goal percentage) of 55.4% by adding an accurate three-point shot to his game. Bosh’s increasing affinity for the three ball will provide good floor spacing, and will force Al Jefferson further from the basket and face him with having to contest shots on the perimeter.
As I mentioned earlier, individual defensive matchups will be key for both teams, and this is where Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra shines. Al Jefferson is the guy that Spoelstra will hone in on, so I expect the Heat will attempt to slow Big Al by mixing in the other big men alongside Chris Bosh. This will likely include small doses of Greg Oden combined with the usual solid contributions of Chris Andersen and Udonis Haslem. Jefferson makes his money from zero to 10 feet from the rim at a blistering 59.5% clip, and the Heat get beat up in the paint. I think the Heat can neutralize some of Big Al’s impact with a variety of defensive looks and by speeding up the tempo. If the Heat can assert their transition game and defend the paint even a little, they should be able to take this series with relative ease.
Heat Player to Watch – Dwyane Wade
It seems pretty insane not to have mentioned Wade much until now, but he didn’t have much of an impact on the regular season series and missed about a third of the season in total. However, the Heat were able to sweep the Bobcats without his services, so his impact in this series will be measured by his health. The Heat may not need Wade to advance to the second round, but they will certainly need him to advance beyond that. Thus I recommend watching Wade to see if he can make it out of this series unscathed, but also because when healthy he can be a matchup problem for the Bobcats.
Wade may have missed a bunch of games, but when he’s played, he's still been extremely effective. His ability to play passing lanes and get out in transition makes him a problem for the Bobcats’ wing players. Wade is also posting career shooting numbers from two-point range at 55.7%, with most of his damage being done right at the rim. This will be an issue for a Bobcats front line not known for its paint-defense and shot blocking, though as a team they're much improved in both areas.
Regardless, Wade is finding ways to fine tune his game in the relative twilight of his career by improving his mid-range game and taking and making more corner threes than ever before. Gerald Henderson and crew will have their work cut out for them against Dwyane Wade’s fresh legs.
How the Bobcats Can Win
This Bobcats team is inexperienced, but they did some things very well this season that could very well help them in a matchup with the Heat. First off, the Bobcats did a great job taking care of the ball, and had the lowest turnover ratio in the league at 11.7. Meanwhile, the Heat forced the most turnovers at 15.8%. The Bobcats will have to continue to hold on to the rock despite a very active and disruptive Heat defense that causes a ton of deflections.
Second, the Heat are the worst rebounding team in the league, so the Bobcats can exploit this, though it didn't translate to wins during the regular season matchups. Miami also gives up a ton of points in the paint, so the matchup is ripe for Big Al to go wild. Chris Bosh was his primary victim in their previous meetings. In 21 minutes, Jefferson continually torched Bosh for 40 points on 19 for 28 shooting, making this an offensive matchup advantage the Bobcats will look to exploit.
Another way the Bobcats made strides this season was by being one of the best teams at defending without fouling and consequently sending players to the free throw line. The Heat are only eighth in free throws attempted, which is their lowest number of attempts over the last three seasons. This decline should help the Bobcats, assuming Miami’s lack of aggression translates to the postseason, leading to more outside shots.
If they can lock down on the perimeter and the corner three, they have another factor working in their favor. The Bobkitties are going to need some stellar play from blossoming point guard Kemba Walker, who put up 22 and 27 points in the two early meetings with the Heat, but was held to a total of 14 points in the two most recent games. I believe Walker has to overcome the matchup and take a big step forward as a player for the Bobcats to make an impact on this series. As a team, the Bobcats must take full advantage of their strengths and those alone can produce maybe one or two wins. But in order to win the series, they need to be near-perfect on both sides of the ball.
Bobcats Player to Watch – Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
When these teams met during the regular season, LeBron James had his way with the Bobcats; especially when he was matched up with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. According to NBA.com's stats, James was guarded by MKG for 23 minutes in the season series scoring 48 points on 60% shooting. Kidd-Gilchrist didn’t play more than 26 minutes in any of the meetings with the Heat, but I anticipate him to get a slight bump in time played because he's the one guy that has any hope of staying in front of LeBron on the perimeter, as well as being able to guard him in the post.
Regardless of his minutes, MKG is going to have to step it up a notch considering the 37.8 points per game average posted by LeBron in the season series. But if the matchup numbers are any indication, the Bobcats are going to have to get creative to contain the King.
Kidd-Gilchrist is a former second overall pick and is making his first appearance in the playoffs, and I’m sure he is eager to prove himself on the big stage. I have always enjoyed watching him play despite the hideous hitch in his jump shot, mainly because he digs deep and has the potential to be a very versatile defender. I think it's in Bobcats’ coach Steve Clifford’s best interests to give MKG the opportunity to learn and grow in the playoffs. Whatever the case may be, LeBron James is going to put his opponents on an island, and I believe Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has the best tools to do something positive about it. I know that’s a lot of praise to heap on a guy that helped LeBron score 61 points, but his performance this postseason will have significant bearing on their postseason success as well as his future with the team.
As far as predictions go, I think we have a good ol’ gentleman’s sweep on our hands. I mentioned earlier that I expect the Heat to knuckle up and take care of business, but the Bobcats are absolutely capable of winning a one or two close games at home. I will be very interested to see how Erik Spoelstra decides to deploy Dwyane Wade, as well as his big men rotation in regards to slowing Al Jefferson. Will Wade play big minutes out of the gate? I think we have established that it doesn’t really matter in this particular series, which tells us a lot about where the Heat are and how far the Bobcats still have to go.
According to our algorithms: Heat in 5
My final prediction: Heat in 5