The playoffs begin on Saturday, thankfully, which means it’s that lovely time of spring (and it is spring, right? It’s not going to snow again, is it?) when the minds behind Ball Don’t Lie to offer you their thoughts on the upcoming pairings in the first round of the NBA’s postseason.
Kelly Dwyer’s Old Grey Whistle Test
For those just hopping to the NBA season, understand the Charlotte Bobcats didn’t luck or back their way into their second (and final, considering the franchise’s imminent name change) playoffs.
Sadly for Charlotte, the Miami Heat didn’t, either.
You didn’t hear much about the Miami Heat this year, comparatively, because a lack of a 27-game winning streak will do that to a nation’s fancy. The Indiana Pacers held the Eastern Conference’s best record for nearly every day of the 2013-14 regular season, the San Antonio Spurs finished with the league’s best regular season record yet again, and Oklahoma City Thunder superstar Kevin Durant will likely and rightfully lope away with the NBA MVP award, ending LeBron James’ run with the hardware.
The Heat are the champs, though. And not in the “we’ll-call-them-the-champs-until-someone-knocks-them-out” way. That doesn’t mean that 2013-14 was a triumphant regular season turn, however.
The team won only 54 games, fewer than the Chicago Bulls (57) and Los Angeles Lakers (58) did during their three-peat conquerings in 1993 and 2002, and with Miami mostly working in an embarrassing Eastern Conference that saw the Heat lose twice to the Philadelphia 76ers and twice to the Boston Celtics. Dwyane Wade missed 29 games not just because he sat out on the second night of back-to-backs, but also because of a worrying late-season hamstring pull. Ray Allen shot, gasp, just about an average mark from 3-point range.
This is also a team that may just have 15 or 16 games between now and the start of the Finals. This is a team that can run James for huge heaps of minutes, while Wade works at his leisure, with Chris Bosh fitting in wherever needed. Allen’s 3-point percentage starts over on Sunday. Shane Battier grows angel wings. Erik Spoelstra gets to hammer out a game plan against the same opponent, over and over, rather than working against four other coaches in five nights.
Pity those poor Charlotte Bobcats. Kind of.
These Bobcats earned this. “Rookie” head coach Steve Clifford should be a Coach of the Year candidate, and had his team been on national television more often he’d probably have won the damn thing. The Bobcats have evolved into a team with solid depth, and most importantly to a playoff drive, the group defends like mad in spite of the presence of Al Jefferson on the floor.
Of course, the Bobcats wouldn’t be nearly where they are currently with Jefferson, who turned in a career year some six years after tearing his ACL, working in a new environment with a (damn good) point guard in Kemba Walker who isn’t exactly what we’d call “pass-first.”
If you haven’t seen Big Al, prepare for a throwback. Over 22 points and 11 boards in 35 minutes a game, despite needing the season’s first two months to work his way back (mostly on the court) from an ankle sprain. Low-post goodness, in a league that frowns on such things. Touch and footwork and a needed go-to option after a play breaks down for a team that ranked just 24th in offense.
He should have made the All-Star team, but in a lot of ways it was best that he missed it. The All-Star Game wastes talents like Jefferson, and those few days off in mid-February likely helped the player that led Charlotte to a 20-9 record following a showcase that tends to exclude players of a Bobcatian nature.
The ride is likely over. James is basically as tall as Jefferson. Walker had a very good year, but he shot 39 percent to Wade’s 54 percent. Bosh is floating, and the other Heat veterans have been through this before. It’s true that, somehow, Charlotte runs deeper than Miami, but none of this will likely matter when James spies Josh McRoberts’ too-cute entry pass from a mile away, swipes it and turns it into two points before Bobcat fans can even recall they’ll become the Hornets again this fall.
Fair-weather NBA fans? Happily introduce yourself to the Charlotte Bobcats, because this is a team worth watching.
Also, re-introduce yourself to the Miami Heat, because this is a team worth fearing.
Prediction: Miami in 4.
Dan Devine's One Big Question
Every postseason matchup has its own unique set of variables for each team, and prognosticator, to attempt to solve. Here's one that BDL's Dan Devine has been mulling over.
How much energy will Miami have to expend in Round 1?
LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh begin their bid for a fourth straight trip to the NBA finals against a Bobcats team that looks to be heavily overmatched and whom the Heat swept during the regular season. A closer look at the season series, though, suggests that what appears to be a squash might not be quite as breezy as Erik Spoelstra might like.
While the Heat did go 4-0 against the Bobcats, two of those games were nail-biters. There was a one-point Dec. 1 win in which the Big Three all played, but Charlotte point guard Kemba Walker (27 points on 10 for 22 shooting, six assists) largely got where he wanted, and a mid-January overtime victory that saw James (34 points, eight rebounds, six assists) and Bosh (25 points, seven rebounds) carry the day for a resting Wade to come back from a seven-point halftime deficit.
One blowout came while All-NBA-caliber Charlotte center Al Jefferson was sidelined with an ankle injury, which represents a sizable asterisk. The other happened when James became Death, Destroyer of Worlds. (That one still holds up.)
Still, while the Heat stumbled to the finish line by going 13-14 after March 1 -- including some games, to be fair, where they weren't exactly going all-out for the W -- Charlotte played perhaps their best ball of the year. The Bobcats won three straight to finish the regular season and nine of their last 11, including three tough overtime wins against fellow Eastern playoff squads (the Brooklyn Nets, Washington Wizards and Chicago Bulls).
The Bobcats went 16-9 after the February deal to import Gary Neal and Luke Ridnour from the Milwaukee Bucks, a move that added (some) long-range shooting and secondary ball-handling, and helped boost the Bobcats' offense from a dreadful 25th in points scored per possession pre-trade to a middle-of-the-pack 16th afterward. Another key helper: Josh McRoberts, the beautifully coiffed power forward whose fantastic touch as a high-post passer (five dimes per 36 minutes, assisting on nearly 22 percent of his teammates' buckets while he's on the floor) has paired perfectly with Big Al's left-block mastery, and whose long-range shooting (36.1 percent from 3-point land) has helped give Jefferson room to cook.
Gerald Henderson's production has dipped virtually across the board this season, but the versatile wing tends to be a bellwether; he's shooting 45.4 percent from the floor and 37.5 percent from 3 in Charlotte wins, and just 41.3/32.2 in losses. When he tries too hard to create his own offense, he can hurt more than he helps, but when he simply plays his role -- making smart cuts to take advantage of the attention Jefferson draws, or finding openings on the perimeter to be available for spot-up shots off kickouts -- he can threaten.
Rookie Cody Zeller has come on since the All-Star break, shooting 50 percent and averaging nearly eight points and five rebounds in 18 1/2 minutes per game by crashing the offensive boards, running the floor and ducking in off the weak side to dunk dump-off passes. Chris Douglas-Roberts has gone from scrap-heap signee to valuable piece in head coach Steve Clifford's rotation, adding complementary scoring and rebounding while providing defensive versatility on the wing and making some big shots.
Charlotte is a patient, careful team that turned the basketball over on a league-low 12.9 percent of offensive possessions, and allowed the league's fewest fast-break points and points off turnovers per game this season. They're great at limiting opponents to one shot, leading the NBA in defensive rebounding percentage and finishing seventh in second-chance points allowed. There's real talent and toughness here, actual players who do things; these aren't the Bobcats you remember.
They're still not going to spring an upset, though.
Even dropping out LeBron's outlier 61-point explosion, Miami still hammered the Bobcats' No. 6-ranked defense in their other three games, scoring at a rate (109.1 points per 100 possessions) commensurate with their second-best-in-the-NBA full-season mark. The Bobcats' pack-the-paint scheme did reduce in the share of shots Miami took in the lane -- 44.7 percent of Heat field-goal attempts against Charlotte came there, down from 47 percent on the season as a whole -- but Miami converted the exact same share of them (62.9 percent) while shooting even better than their full-season mark on the midrange shots Charlotte concedes with its coverage.
With James' ability to prosper against any defense, Bosh's elite midrange shooting and Wade presumably ready to rock after having his workload managed all season, Miami has the right weapons to attack Charlotte's defense. While Jefferson will likely continue beasting on Miami's small front line -- Big Al's averaged a shade over 25 points and 15 rebounds against the Heat this season, shooting 57.4 percent -- Charlotte doesn't figure to get reliable enough deep shooting to keep Miami from swarming the interior. And even if the Cats can knock down some pressure-relieving 3s early, that'll probably just remind Miami that it's late April, and that it's now time to flip the now-infamous switch that turns their closeouts and rotations from solid to terrifying.
The key to this postseason could be whether Charlotte forces Miami to flip that switch early. If Miami's offense hits the ground running smoothly enough for the defense to get away with just-good-enough effort, then the Heat will be in good shape moving forward. But if the Bobcats can keep their late-season form going and land some shots on Miami early, and if Jefferson can dominate enough to steal a game in Miami, the Heat may find themselves having to put in work that could come back to bite them during the grueling rounds to follow.
The 'Cats won't go easily, but I think the resolution will skew closer to the former than the latter. I respect what Jefferson and Clifford have done enough to think they'll notch the first (and last) win in Bobcats postseason history at home, but Miami should be able to keep its powder dry with stiffer challenges ahead.
Prediction: Heat in 5.
Eric Freeman’s Guide to Playoff Watchability
Over the next two months, basketball fans will hear all manner of insights into key matchups, x-factors, and other series-deciding phenomena. For most people, though, watching so much basketball is a luxury or bizarre form of punishment, not a fact of life. These brave souls must know one thing: is this game between 10 men in pajamas worth the time? Eric Freeman’s Guide to Playoff Watchability attempts to answer this difficult question.
The Heat have been one of the league’s most exciting teams during the Big Three era, regularly putting forth amazing showcases of the best contemporary basketball has to offer. However, this team cannot escape narrative. The best Heat moments, either good or bad, have involved games and series that appear to serve as referenda on LeBron James’s place in basketball history, or the moral rectitude of building a team around stars obtained in free agency. In other words, the Heat need the right context to reach their full watchability potential — otherwise they’re just a garden-variety group of generationally unique stars.
It’s safe to say that the Charlotte is not the team to bring out Miami’s full possibilities this series. Like the Milwaukee Bucks in last spring’s first round, the Bobcats are a team of limited talent. What head coach Steve Clifford has done this season is quite amazing — the Bobcats are a genuinely effective squad with with the East’s third-best defense by points-per-possession and a big man in Al Jefferson who could ravage the Heat’s interior defense. But they’re not a sexy team by any stretch. Sunday’s Game 1 will mark their first national TV appearance of 2013-14, and many casual fans may still consider them fodder for late-night TV monologue jokes.
That’s not to say that this series is wholly unwatchable. The Heat won’t rise to their peak watchability until later in the postseason, but viewers are likely to see one or two unbelievable plays from LeBron and Co. Plus, despite not being world-beaters, the Bobcats do have a lot to offer. At the very least, they will provide something new to discover for all but the most committed League Pass devotees. The playoffs last a pretty long time, so seek out the unfamiliar while you still can.
Rating: 4 out of 10 Angry Tweets About LeBron Being a Loser
Prediction: Heat in 4.