NBA Playoffs Preview: Heat vs. Hornets

Do the Hornets have enough firepower versus a new-look Heat team that is finding their identity?

The Miami Heat are back in the NBA playoffs after a one-year hiatus and just two years removed from losing in the Finals to the San Antonio Spurs. The roster looks much different, but the Heat still have very intriguing pieces and play with an edge that you would expect from a team led by Dwyane Wade.

Unfortunately, Miami has been riddled with injuries and will be missing leading scorer Chris Bosh, who has been out since the All-Star break with blood-clotting in his left calf, an issue that sidelined him for much of last season as well.

To hedge the loss of Chris Bosh, the Heat went out and acquired Joe Johnson after he was bought out and waived by the Brooklyn Nets around the trade deadline. Johnson significantly bolstered the injury-depleted roster and helped lead the Heat to a 16-8 record from his arrival on averages of 13.4 points per game and a desperately needed 41% mark from three-point range.

Johnson also provided a notable stylistic opportunity for the Heat by allowing them to play with greater Pace, going from the 4th-slowest Pace (95.25) leading up to the All-Star break to the 11th-fastest (97.02).

Two years after being swept by the Miami Heat as the Bobcats, Charlotte is back in the playoffs with a big chip on their shoulder. This year’s Hornets, led by Kemba Walker, bring an excellent balance of defense, Pace and three-point spacing while averaging the fewest turnovers in the league.

In years past, the Hornets were a post-up heavy team that would run their offense through Al Jefferson, but now, they find themselves in the bottom-10 in post-up frequency as the offense typically runs through Walker and newly-acquired Nicolas Batum. Charlotte has also seen their fair share of injuries as well, most notably being the loss of their top defender Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

This stylistic change for the Hornets has helped the team greatly, as well as Walker individually, who is having a career season that should not go unnoticed. Walker holds season averages of 20.9 points, 4.4 rebounds and 5.2 assists and 1.6 steals per game, but the proof is in the career-high shooting percentages. This season, he raised his field goal percentage from 38% to 42% as well as his three-point percentage from 30% to 37% while taking 1.5 more threes per game all with a slight increase in usage.

This season, both the Heat and Hornets find themselves to be different iterations of themselves from years past, but both are very adaptable when it comes to pace and matchups. Let’s take a closer look to see which team has the best chance to come out on top.

Miami Heat (3)

Record: 48-34
nERD: 58.6
Championship Odds: 2.7%

Charlotte Hornets (6)

Record: 48-34
nERD: 59.5
Championship Odds: 2.1%

Regular Season Series – Heat 2, Hornets 2

In four games as Southeast Division opponents, the Heat and Hornets split their season series at two apiece, with the first two games being decided by 10 or more points and the second two games each being decided by three points.

In the first matchup, the Heat played great defense, moved the ball with precision, and managed to go 12-of-20 from downtown. The second matchup saw the Hornets win by 18, led by a Batum triple-double.

The third game was a narrow 98-95 win by the Heat, despite 20 points apiece from Walker, Batum and Marvin Williams. The game was sealed by a heroic steal and dish by Wade that led to a Luol Deng dunk as well as a Hassan Whiteside triple-double with blocks. The final game was the first without Bosh and wasn’t as close as the final score suggested, as the Hornets dominated the second half with a balanced attack.

How the Heat Can Win

In order to take this series, the Heat have to play disciplined perimeter defense. The Hornets rank fourth in the league in three-point makes and attempts, so Miami should focus on preventing Walker and Williams from getting open perimeter shots and funneling them to Whiteside in the paint.

Controlling the tempo will be another challenge that the Heat must solve in order to win. This starts and ends with Goran Dragic. Miami’s shift to a faster attack suits his strengths, and his post All-Star break numbers show that, but the goal will be to make Kemba Walker work hard on both ends of the floor.

Heat Player to Watch – Hassan Whiteside

Whiteside is the league’s leading shot blocker with 3.7 blocks per game, and as a result, the Heat are the league’s best shot blocking team. There aren’t many better rim protectors in the league right now, and Whiteside poses a significant threat to a Hornets team that already takes the fourth-fewest shots from inside five feet. The big man’s intimidating presence should further discourage Charlotte from taking shots from in close.

Whiteside has a significant offensive advantage over each of the Hornets' frontcourt players, as well, whether it be size or athleticism. He shot 60% from the field and 77% around the rim, so Miami should be able to score effectively in the paint assuming they can get him the ball consistently.

How the Hornets Can Win

The Hornets need to play to their strengths to win this series. One such way is for them to continue to take care of the ball, as they turn it over the least in the league at 12.6 per game. Maintaining possessions has allowed the Hornets to play with pace effectively and should help them marginalize Whiteside on both ends by making it harder for him to get back on defense and defend the fast break. If Charlotte can get Whiteside out of the game, their lineup combinations could mean trouble for the Heat.

The Hornets will also need to control the three-point line on both sides. On defense they must force the Heat, the fourth-worst three-point shooting team, into contested shots, and on offense, they simply have to play to their identity by spacing the floor and hitting threes. If the three-pointers aren’t falling for the Hornets, it could be a long series.

Hornets Player to Watch – Marvin Williams

Marvin Williams is in his 11th season at age 29 and is having his best all-around season in the NBA. Let that sink in for a minute because you don’t see that often. Williams has posted career highs in PER (16.8), Offensive Rating (118), and Win Shares (7.8), showing how important he is to this team’s success.

Williams’ effectiveness stems from his ability to play the stretch-four, and he has given the Hornets a positional versatility that is amongst the best in the league. He has provided a new dimension in their offense that did not exist previously, making the philosophical transition to a pace-and-space style a smooth one.

Marvin’s defensive versatility must also be noted, but it certainly will be tested as he will getting a variety of looks at Luol Deng, Justise Winslow, and Joe Johnson throughout the series. But as long as Williams can continue to shoot the three-ball, he will be a serious threat for the Heat to monitor.

Series Prediction

This series will certainly be a close one no matter how you chop it up. Neither team has a glaring advantage over the other, and both are missing critical pieces to their team due to injury.

Miami does seem to be the deeper team, but they are also still learning to play with the addition of Joe Johnson and the increased pace. Expect the Heat to be the more prepared team, as most Erik Spoelstra teams often are, but don’t be surprised to see Charlotte take Game 1 and home-court advantage. The Hornets need a win simply to break their 10-game playoff losing streak, but they do have a real chance at winning this series and advancing if they can control the perimeter and contain Miami in end-of-game situations.

As far as the series outlook is concerned, we will likely get a seven-game series with one or two blowouts but mostly close games with some potential overtime action, as well.

According to our algorithms: Miami Heat are 54.0% favorites.

My final prediction: Heat in 7 games.