Matchup Preview: Heat vs. Hornets

It’s Playoff Time:

The playoff picture in the Eastern Conference has finally been determined, even though four teams ended up with a 48-34 record. It’s unfortunate that two of these teams lost out on home court advantage simply because of a tiebreaker, but that’s basketball. Now it’s time for the playoffs to begin, where each team will have to battle to stay alive and fight for the highly sought after title of 2015-2016 NBA Champion.

Best Case Scenario for Heat:

I can say with the utmost confidence that the Heat will not be raising the desired championship banner in American Airlines Arena this year. However, that doesn’t mean they don’t have the potential to make some major noise in the first few rounds.

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(Pedro Portal/El Nuevo Herald)

Their first challenge is playing the versatile Charlotte Hornets. Luckily for Miami, they have home court advantage against a Charlotte team that is 18-23 on the road. This provides Miami with a major upper hand that I expect will assist in determining the outcome of the series.

Even though the Miami Heat lost to the Boston Celtics by giving up a 26-point lead on the final night of the regular season, they still ended up with the best possible scenario. Out of the three other teams the Heat could have played in the first round, Charlotte is undoubtedly the best matchup.

The other two potential teams Miami could have played, Boston and Atlanta, posed a much larger threat. The Celtics are 3-0 against the Heat this season and have beaten them by an average margin of 10.6 points per game. Boston’s versatility and depth have given Miami problems all year, so it’s not difficult to see why the Heat wouldn’t want to face Boston in the first round.

Atlanta, on the other hand, has lost three out of four to Miami this season. However, I truly think that Atlanta is the second most complete team in the Eastern Conference behind Cleveland. This doesn’t take anything away from Toronto’s franchise record 56-win season, but Atlanta has two of the most dominant big men in the game in Al Horford and Paul Millsap. They also have a ton of playoff experience, reaching the postseason in nine consecutive years. I can confidently say that the Heat, Celtics, and Hornets all did not want to see the Hawks in the first round.

Head to Head Matchups:

The Heat and Hornets have faced off four times this year, and the teams split the season series 2-2. Let’s start by breaking each one of them down and seeing what we can take away from this four game sample.

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(Jim Rassol/Sun Sentinel)

This was a very even series during the regular season. The order of the wins flip-flops Heat, Hornets, Heat, Hornets. They played on opening night, where the Heat won by a score of 104-94 on their home court. Obviously, this was 82 games ago so there isn’t much that can be taken out of this win. Chris Bosh played 32 minutes, Mario Chalmers got a nice amount of time off the bench, and Josh Richardson wasn’t even on the roster. It’s fair to say that this team is looking a lot different now. So yes, the Heat won, but this win cannot be taken seriously.

The second time they played was during December in Charlotte. The Heat got absolutely dismantled, losing 99-81. They shot an abysmal 6-21 (28.6%) from beyond the arc and 38.7% from the field. On the other hand, Charlotte shot 11-27 (40.7%) from three and 49.4% overall. Miami’s shooting was absolutely atrocious that night, and Charlotte was able to use its depth to wear down Miami’s older core.

Unfortunately, Bosh played in three of their four contests this season, so it’s tough to gauge how Miami will fare against Charlotte without their star power forward. The Heat did end up winning their third contest by three in Charlotte. Wade and Bosh paced the Heat with 22 and 20 points, respectively, while Marvin Williams, Nicolas Batum, and Kemba Walker all had over 20 points for the Hornets. Whiteside posted a triple double with 10 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 blocks, so expect Whiteside’s blocking ability to continue to reign supreme during this series.

The final contest was another close battle. Charlotte won by a score of 109-106 in Miami. This is the one game that can truly show what type of series this is going to be. The Heat roster during this game looks just about identical to what it is now. Joe Johnson was finally on the team, and their eight-man rotation consisted of Wade, Dragic, Deng, Johnson, Stoudemire, Winslow, Whiteside, and Richardson. That’s the exact rotation I expect in the playoffs, with the possible exception of one more player.

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(Pedro Portal/El Nuevo Herald)

This finale of their season series was a very gritty and hard-fought game, which is exactly how I foresee the entire series playing out.

Matchup to Watch for:

There are two main matchups to really focus on during this series, and they both involve ball-handlers. Arguably the most important matchup is at the point guard position, which features Kemba Walker against Goran Dragic. Walker has torched the Heat to the tune of 19.5 points, 5.3 rebounds, 5.3 assists, and 2.3 steals, while shooting 43.5% from beyond the arc during their four contests this season.

Dragic has increased his scoring output in every single month this season, averaging 17.4 points, 4.9 assists, and 4.8 rebounds per game so far in April. It’s obvious that the Dragon has recently been playing his best basketball of the season, and there’s little doubt that he’ll continue to display this dominance throughout the playoffs. Dragic, along with Josh Richardson off the bench, need to figure out a way to slow down Kemba’s incredible offensive abilities.

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(Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY Sports)

If I were the Heat, I would be a little worried to play clutch Kemba in the playoffs. The last time he was in a meaningful basketball postseason was in 2010-2011, when Walker single-handedly won the national championship for the UCONN Huskies. Walker only has four games of NBA playoff experience, a series in which the Hornets (formerly known as the Bobcats) were swept by Miami when LeBron was still in town. The clutch gene Kemba is known to have doesn’t just disappear, so expect Walker to make big plays in big moments for his aspiring Charlotte squad.

One player on Charlotte that does have a lot of playoff experience is Nicolas Batum. I expect Batum and Joe Johnson to be battling all series long. They are two established veterans who can both put their team on their back whenever necessary, even though they are two completely different types of players. Batum is known as the Swiss army knife because he literally does everything. He can score, rebound, assist, stroke the three, handle the ball, defend four positions, and so on. There’s not much he doesn’t impact on the basketball court.

Johnson, on the other hand, is simply known as a scorer, and that’s exactly why the Heat brought him in. He can score on command, which was seen the other night in Detroit when he scored 15 of his 25 points in the final six minutes of the game. Johnson has always been a clutch go-to scorer, so if the Heat need some quick bursts of buckets, they know exactly who to turn to.

Both of these matchups will be crucial in determining the outcome of the series.

Matchup Prediction:

This matchup will be a lot closer than people expect. My prediction is that Miami is going to win in seven games, simply because of home court advantage. Charlotte is 30-11 at home, which is the 6th best mark in the league. If Charlotte was the three seed and Miami was the six, I would actually expect the Hornets to win the series. However, their road record indicates that they cannot thrive away from the “Hive.” I feel like throughout the first six games, each team will win two at home and one on the road. The veteran leadership in the Miami locker room, along with the fact that game seven will be in South Beach, will ultimately propel the Heat into the next round.

 

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