The series we all expected to be the best series has become the best series. Like virtually all of the games so far this postseason across both conferences, the first few Miami Heat/Charlotte Hornets matchups were lopsided affairs.
Miami dominated on its home court to take the first two game. Then the Hornets repaid the favor and took Game 3 by 16 points, as the Heat put on an embarrassing performance in North Carolina.
The last two contests have found the sweet spot, however. And the ending of Game 5 last night was arguably the most thrilling finish of the entire playoffs.
There were positives for Miami in defeat. All five Heat starters scored in double figures, and Dwyane Wade looked like his young self. His 25 points, on 11-of-19 shooting, all seemed to come when they were most needed, and he filled up the stat sheet with 5 boards and 4 assists as well.
Miami also played potent defense overall, holding the Hornets under 40% shooting and keeping Charlotte star Kemba Walker out of sorts. The All-Star guard finished with just 14 points on a miserable 4-of-18 shooting night.
But the Heat ultimately lost due to multiple problems that were issues all evening long. The Hornets hit half of their 3-point attempts (12-of-24 on the night), and a late-game, backbreaking trey by Courtney Lee with 25 seconds to play — less than 40 seconds after he missed a breakaway layup — was the difference.
The play was a microcosm for why the Heat have now lost three straight. Down 87-88, Kemba Walker ran a pick-and-roll that Miami played decently but not great. Walker found space in the midrange after easily shaking the hulking Hassan Whiteside. To Whiteside’s credit, he challenged the jumper well — enough to force a miss from the scuffling Kemba.
But Lee maneuvered into the lane to grab an offensive board. He kicked it to Jeremy Lin, who passed it right back to Lee. He had daylight at the top of the key. Though he had only made one shot all night, and was fresh off the aforementioned layup blunder, he let it fly. It was the first time he had seen the ball go through the net since he hit a 3-pointer when the score was 14-9 early in the first quarter.
From the opening minutes to the final seconds, from the first Lee triple to the last, the Heat were unable to defend the 3-point arc. Both of Lee’s makes came on wide-open jumpers, and there is no excuse for letting someone who has shot 39.1% from deep in a Hornets uniform get so free.
With that dagger, Lee put the Hornets up 90-88.
Miami wouldn’t score again (although Dwyane Wade’s squeeze was right to be so upset about a non-call on a foul when he attacked the rim with 3 seconds to play). In fact, the Heat didn’t score a point in the final two and a half minutes of the game and have now failed to reach even 90 points in three straight losses.
The stretches of futility have been difficult to watch. In addition to only putting up 17 points in the fourth quarter of Game 5, the Heat laid an egg with a 13-point second quarter in Game 4. This allowed Charlotte to mount a double-digit lead that it would never relinquish. Game 3 was even worse: Miami followed up a 16-point second quarter with another stinker by only managing 14 points in the third.
This has been Miami’s undoing.
As good as the Heat’s defense has been overall, being unable to score leaves little room for error. If Miami had scored at even a competent rate in Game 5, the single-possession mistakes on the other end wouldn’t be as glaring. But no team is capable of playing perfect defense for 48 minutes.
Hornets coach Steve Clifford seems to have aptly read the first two games of this series, noting that he wasn’t necessarily planning any adjustments since the Heat were simply making a ton of shots in their first two wins.
In the press conference after Charlotte fell into an 0-2 hole in the series, Clifford tried to explain to the media what had happened by using a Jeff Van Gundy saying. “Jeff Van Gundy likes to say, ‘Writers like to say they made an adjustment.’ Usually, the adjustment is some guy that went 1-for-8 went 6-for-8. I’m not joking … Sometimes, the other team just makes shots. That’s really what’s going on.”
So Clifford didn’t make any radical changes. He believed in his defensive approach and he stuck to his game plan.
A similar comment from Charlotte big man Al Jefferson illustrates how much Clifford has embedded his mentality across the roster. “Guys that we wouldn’t mind shooting the ball during the season, they’re knocking them down,” said Jefferson after Game 2, as reported by John Schuhmann of NBA.com.
Starting in Game 3, the Heat stopped making shots.
They have hit jut 91-of-236 (38.6%) field goal attempts since Clifford made those now-prescient comments. The Heat cannot put points on the board.
Miami’s defense has been great. Erik Spoelstra’s team has allowed just 96 points per 100 possessions in Charlotte’s three wins. That is phenomenal.
But they have scored an unthinkably bad 88.0 points per 100 themselves. So key defensive breakdowns — failing to get an offensive rebound and leaving Courtney Lee open — matter all the more.
Even as much as Lee’s heroics and the no-call on Wade’s drive seemed to determine the outcome of this game, Miami is leaving themselves with little chance to win by playing such bad offense. It is almost impossible to win a series when your offense is this inept.
Now it is Erik Spoelstra’s turn to either make a change or keep believing in the strategy that got him a 2-0 lead in the first place. If Spo can’t get devise a better plan or rely on improved shot-making, it won’t matter how well the Miami defense plays.
When you don’t score on the other side of the floor, the inevitable defensive mistake or two will cost you the game. And in the playoffs, those mistakes end your season.
Vote for Steve Kerr
Steve Kerr won the NBA’s Coach of the Year award — as he should have.
There are some who believe that him not physically being on the sidelines for much of the year (due to back surgery) means that there were more deserving candidates. In fact, more than half of the voters — 66 of 130 — chose someone else despite the Golden State Warriors having the best regular season in NBA history.
This is preposterous.
You’re either over-thinking it or not thinking enough.
On the first point: 73 wins, best season ever, revolutionizing the sport, garnering more interest than even Kobe and LeBron ever could, playing gorgeous basketball.
On the other point: Terry Stotts, a lovely man and a wonderful coach, came in second while winning 44 games. Yes, the Trail Blazers lost four starters and some thought they would be among the worst teams in the NBA. And they finished fifth in the West. It’s an accomplishment that should be appreciated and applauded.
With a second-place vote.
The fact is that we were wrong about the Trail Blazers. The team was better than we thought it would be during the preseason. C.J. McCollum was way better than we thought. And the Western Conference was way worse than we thought.
So we’re left with one man winning 44 games and another overseeing a franchise that won a record 73. Thinking Kerr didn’t have much to do with that because he wasn’t physically present is nonsense.
He created this team and devised the style of play that has turned Steph Curry into arguably the best player ever. This isn’t something that happens during each game, but is something that Kerr instilled over the course of the title run and continued to oversee, both himself and through Luke Walton, throughout the 2015-16 season, even if he wasn’t involved in the day-to-day affairs as much.
Coaching isn’t just sitting on the sidelines and calling plays. It’s about giving a team an identity and making millions of small decisions that come to define how a group of people trying to achieve a common goal collectively approach that task.
The Warriors culture is a Steve Kerr culture. He was the leader of the best team in regular season history. It’s great that he got a trophy for that. But it’s a shame he didn’t convince more people that he deserved it.
Words With Friends
This week’s five must-read articles about the NBA. Excerpts here — click through to read the full piece.
1. Craig Sager: Always on the bright side
by Lee Jenkins, Sports Illustrated
Sager was diagnosed in April 2014 with acute myeloid leukemia, after he felt exhausted working a game in Dallas, and since then he has undergone two bone marrow transplants, 21 bone marrow biopsies and more than 20 chemo cycles—one that spanned two weeks for 24 hours a day. He has been hospitalized with pneumonia, influenza, C. diff (a bacterial infection) and gout. He has slipped out of remission twice, most recently in February, though he did not tell anybody for fear he’d get pulled off coverage of All-Star weekend
2. Brad Stevens could be one of the greatest coaches who ever lived
by Jackie MacMullan, ESPN
“We’re not done here,” [Kyrie] Irving reprimanded. “[Brad] Stevens is damn smart. He’s coming at us with something new, so we better be ready.” Even though the Celtics had been beaten by an average of 9.7 points in the series, the youngest head coach in the NBA lingered in Cleveland’s psyche, Irving says, because Stevens had already accomplished what every coach sets out to do when his club is outmatched: prevent the deeper, more experienced, more talented team from settling into a rhythm.
3. Hawks, Celtics Alone on Playoff Stage in Close Out Game
by Paul Newberry and Tom Withers, Associated Press
After a frenzied start to the week that saw some of the NBA’s top players sidelined by injuries, Thursday will mark the quietest night in the NBA playoffs so far, with only one game scheduled … Atlanta will now attempt to earn the first road win for either team in the series in what is expected to be a raucous TD Garden arena hoping to will the Celtics to a Game 7. “Experience, I do think it helps,” Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “Each time you get to go through playing on the road in the playoffs and all the things that go into that — no matter what city, what arena, what team you’re talking about — I think you grow with each experience. Hopefully you learn and you’re better prepared to do it.”
4. Casey steps out of his comfort zone as Raptors find new ways to win
by Eric Koreen, SportsNet
Both Powell and DeMar DeRozan were part of the small-ball lineup that was at the heart of the Raptors’ escape-from-the-grave victory in Tuesday’s Game 5. Bismack Biyombo played with two point guards, Kyle Lowry and Cory Joseph, and two wings, Powell and DeRozan. Terrence Ross subbed in for DeRozan for more than four minutes. Those two lineups were the only ones that Dwane Casey used in the fourth quarter, which the Raptors won 25-9, stealing a game that looked lost. Those lineups played a combined zero minutes together in the regular season. DeRozan said the he and his teammates discussed the strange units that Casey called on after the game. “It was a crazy thing to think about,” DeRozan said. “Like, we never even ran a play together in practice.”
5. Harden, Howard and Rockets face uncertainty
by Calvin Watkins, ESPN
When Harden walked through the arena’s metal detectors, he held out his toiletry bag for a security guard and, instead of placing his cellphone into a customary plastic box, he handed it to his own security guard. He didn’t wait for his bag to be checked. Harden instead strolled toward the locker room with the knowledge that someone would get his bag and bring his phone to him. It was such a diva-like arrival to a playoff game, and rather odd given how badly the Rockets need togetherness in a trying season that has seen them underachieve and face criticism that they are not on the same page.