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Blogcat’s Take, 4/16: Playoff (!) Preview

Whenever an adversary hangs around long enough, eventually I hit a tipping point wherein my hatred melts into grudging admiration. That happened this year with the Miami Heat on February 19th, the first game after the All-Star Break. Ten days earlier Chris Bosh announced his blood clot issue would probably end his season, Dwyane Wade was injured, Hassan Whiteside was suspended, and yet the Heat beat the Atlanta Hawks with a starting lineup of Luol Deng, Justise Winslow, Gerald Green, Goran Dragic, and Amaré Stoudemire. Miami would go onto win their next two games before losing very narrowly to the Warriors. I suddenly realized that my gut reaction to them was no longer geyser-gushes of bile but something closer to the “you-and-I-we-are-not-so-very-different” movie cliché. To be sure, Wade’s game is so infuriatingly “old man” that anytime I watch him I get a sudden compulsion to put on Bermuda shorts, black socks, and sandals. He also couldn’t badger referees harder if he burrowed a hole on the court and covered it with twigs. As a result, he gets more calls than a telethon, wrapping up the complete experience of watching him into a perfect package of joyless hate. And despite his decrepitude, despite Bosh’s tragic health problems, despite LeBron leaving, that team somehow replenished with Winslow, Whiteside, Dragic, and Josh Richardson, and they got the 3rd seed. Just call me Captain Blogcat Willard:

So how did the Heat manage to do this? As much as possible I’ll focus on the post-Bosh period (a.k.a. post-All Star Break) rather than the whole season, because that’s really what the Hornets are up against. The Hornets have received plenty of digital dap for their 22-8 post-ASB record, but the Heat were close followers with a mark of 19-10. In that span, Miami’s offense actually slightly outplayed Charlotte’s, scoring 109.0 points/100 possessions to 108.8, though their defense was slightly less stingy: 103.2 points allowed to the Hornets’ 101.7 (per NBA.com). Miami’s fantastic at getting second-chance opportunities, as their 27.4 offensive rebound percentage has been fourth-best in the league, leading to a fourth-best 15.0 2nd chance points per 100 possessions. And they’ve also excelled at…absolutely nothing else. I’m looking at their stats now, and nothing is jumping out at me. Since the ASB, the Heat haven’t played at a remarkably slow or fast pace, are average at avoiding turnovers and taking advantage of them, and they don’t foul or get foul calls at a high or low rate (imagine if they didn’t have Wade, stalking the refs like Jason Voorhees after a supposed non-call?). The Heat do generally avoid 3’s (2nd lowest 3PTA% in the league) and get the majority of their scoring in the paint (2nd highest %PITP), which provides A) evidence of a very deliberate, well-thought-out plan by Coach Eric Spoelstra, and :cool: an explanation for the rest of my hatred for Miami beyond Wade’s antics and stubborn refusal to die or maim himself.

You’re probably guessing that much of the above is due to Whiteside, and you’re correct. Contrary to what most Charlotte Observer articles say, the most salient fact about Whiteside is not that he’s a native of Gastonia, it’s that he props up his team’s offensive rebound percentage from 21.8% when he’s off-court to 30.8% when he plays (again, these are all post-ASB). He’s also racked up the third-highest usage rate over the past few months, and his true-shooting percentage of 64.1% explains the points-in-the-paint prevalence. Also, since February, he’s played the 3rd most minutes on the team, behind only Deng and Dragic; the sewer to Miami’s playoff success clearly empties out into the Whiteside River.

What’s weird is that Whiteside hasn’t been featured in Miami’s most-used lineup since the ASB, a lineup which really needs its own nickname, a la the circa-1983 Philadelphia Phillies “Wheeze Kids,” because it’s the lineup in which Miami goes all-in on Old Man Ball: Dragic-Deng-Wade-Stoudemiré…and the almost literally immortal Joe Johnson. How about we call them the ZombHeat? Whatever the name, this group shuffles about at a snail-like 94 possessions-a-game pace, can’t stay in front of anyone on defense, and yet somehow harasses opponents and refs like Denny’s waiters during an early-bird special to the tune of 118.5 points-per-possession. Whiteside is a fixture in the next four-most used lineups, though, and sure enough, the second-chance opportunities explode and the defense gets stingier.

And he’ll be the linchpin in this series with the Hornets as well. In fact, that entire preceding paragraph can pretty much go out the window like Hans Gruber, because Whiteside’s been a net-positive 6.0 points/100 possessions against Charlotte in the four regular season games the two teams played against each other, trailing only Richardson and Winslow among the Heat’s regulars. More importantly, Miami dropped to a -11.9 points per 100 possessions against Charlotte whenever Stoudemiré lurched onto the court to sub in for him. If Winslow can smother our wings on the perimeter (which he’s been very effective at all season; I actually could have just as easily spent as much time on him as a Hornets Killer as I have on Whiteside), Whiteside patrols the paint and puts back offensive rebounds or kicks them out to his wheelchair-bound grandparents Deng and Johnson for three’s, or god forbid Wade and Whiteside get the pick-and-roll going…watch out.

The good news is that in the battle of unstoppable force vs. immovable object, the Hornets don’t let Whiteside rebound against them like he does against the rest of the league. The Heat’s offensive rebounding ability dropped to a manageable 21.5% with Whiteside on the court against the Hornets this year, mostly because of stellar efforts from Cody Zeller. Charlotte’s also been able to get him in a bit of foul trouble in the past, albeit not Andre Drummond-levels of trouble. Whiteside averaged 3.4 fouls per 36 minutes against the league this year, which ticked up to 4.4 in the four Hornets games; so it might happen at some point in the series but not necessarily often. Mostly, though, Charlotte’s kept the pace faster than the Heat would prefer and have been more efficient around the perimeter. Although Charlotte’s percentage of 3-pt attempts wasn’t quite as high against Miami as it was against the rest of the league—31% compared to 34.8%--the Hornets made them at a better rate: 38.8% to 36.2%. Winslow, however, might have gotten better even since the Hornets played Miami a few weeks ago; he’s like one of those sci-fi movie monsters about which the scientists forebodingly say, “The creature seems to be…learning.” Nic Batum, Marvin Williams, and Courtney Lee are all going to have to overcome Winslow crawling around in their jocks like a bacterial fungus.

However, if the Hornets can hit those three’s, make the most of their precious and few moments against Stoudemiré, and Zeller continues to grab those defensive boards like bites to eat, they have a real chance at an upset in this series. It’s interesting how little I’ve mentioned Wade and Dragic in this preview, but that’s because the Hornets have contained both of them pretty well this year; Dragic has a negative 5.6 rating against us and Wade has been a downright delightful -16.6. It’s Whiteside (+6.), Winslow (+8.4), and Richardson (+15.5 and also “learning”) who’ve done the most damage against us this year. Batum has fared pretty well against whatever the Heat have thrown at him (+14.1), but Richardson obliterated Lee in their one meeting this year. The Hornets will need Lee to at least keep Winslow and the others honest while Whiteside is out there or we’re going to have to rely on Kemba Walker and Batum to pull stuff out of their cracks like drug mules—which they’ve admittedly been been able to do a ton this year, but it makes for harrowing drama if you’re emotionally tied to this team, as I clearly am. Speaking of me, I’m the classic anti-homer who predicted this team wouldn’t make the playoffs, and who also thought the Panthers would lose every game starting around week 6, so I’m certainly not going to start predicting success for my teams now. But I will venture to say that the Hornets will get their first playoff win in their modern incarnation, and as long as none of the fatal daggers in any of the games are thrust in by Wade, I’ll consider this postseason a success.

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    Hornets in 6



    We've gotta turn up the pace and intensity to tire out the geezers.