Summer doesn’t start for another two months, but the Charlotte Hornets are already looking for ways to beat the heat. After a ridiculous four-way tie for the third-best record in the Eastern Conference, the Hornets drew the short straw and earned the sixth seed. They’ll meet the Miami Heat, a team they went 2-2 against during the regular season. The series doesn’t have the same appeal as some of the others in the first round do when it comes to superstar players or exciting story lines, but it does figure to be one of the most exciting and closest matchups of the round.
The Heat are the higher seed, but there are reasons for the Hornets to be hopeful. Making it to the second round for the first time since 2002, however, will depend on the answers to these three questions.
Can the Hornets stop the Heat?
This might be the most important question for the Hornets. The regular season doesn’t provide many answers, either – only one of their matchups came after Charlotte traded for Courtney Lee, who figures to be a major part of the defensive game plan. Lee should start out defending Dwyane Wade, and will be spending plenty of time there. His offensive responsibilities are somewhat small, so he’ll be able to focus all his efforts on slowing down the Heat star. Nicolas Batum, who says he’ll play in Game 1, will be able to spend some time on Wade, but his importance to the offense may dissuade the team from using him there too often.
The Hornets lack a real rim protector, which could become a major problem if Kemba Walker has to guard Goran Dragic. Walker will probably have trouble staying in front of Dragic, but that still might be the best option for the team. If they shift Lee or Batum onto the tricky guard, Walker would have to defend a bigger player that could hurt him in the post. Erik Spoelstra is too good of a coach to ignore that mismatch, and it puts the Hornets in a difficult defensive situation.
Dragic may give the Hornets fits, but taking the opponent’s star out of the game is a great way to start a defensive game plan. Charlotte is well-equipped to slow down Wade, and that might be enough to stop the Heat. Clifford is a great defensive coach that's crafted top-10 defenses every year with Walker at the point and without a terrifying big man at the rim, so the worries about Dragic may be overblown.
Can Charlotte actually score?
The Hornets have managed to put together a top-10 offense for the first time in the Steve Clifford era, but the Heat have a capable defense of their own. The biggest name on that side is athletic young big man Hassan Whiteside, but he’s only one piece of the unit. Luol Deng isn’t as good a defender as he used to be, but he’s still capable. Wade has ability on that end, and rookies Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson have both been very good there.
Outside of individual players, the Heat’s entire scheme may give Charlotte trouble. The Hornets’ offensive identity is based around hitting three-pointers, and the Heat work to keep teams from taking them – they’ve allowed the third-fewest threes and attempts in the league. Despite that, however, the Hornets still hit 10 threes per game against the Heat this season (they averaged 10.6 in all games).
Walker has a history of hitting big shots late in games, but it’s hard to tell who will guard him in crunch time. Richardson may be the best choice on him, but he didn’t get much time until late in the season, and he may not be ready for this stage. Winslow got time all season, but he’s still barely 20 years old. Whiteside takes too many plays off, and his effectiveness is limited anyway due to the Hornets’ perimeter-oriented play. Jeremy Lin should provide valuable minutes and scoring off the bench, and Al Jefferson is waiting in the wings if the Hornets need to go big. They have options, and could even dictate what lineups the Heat are able to use.
The Heat have a great defense, but there are cracks there that the Hornets will be looking to take advantage of.
How much does home court advantage matter?
The Heat and Hornets each went 48-34 on the season and, as mentioned before, split the season series 2-2. There’s not too much of a difference between these teams, so it may all come down to the fact that the Heat get home court advantage. Of course, that might not actually make a difference. The teams each won a game on the road against each other, and the Heat weren't particularly good in Miami The Heat aren’t exactly known for an intimidating fan base, either, so the Hornets have a chance there. Still, Miami is the land of DOS MINUTOS, when crazy things start to happen, and it's never easy to play on the road. There is an advantage for Miami, but it's not as big as it would be for another team. Charlotte can definitely steal a game there and if they do, they'll be in great position to move on.
This is a tough series to call. It’s going to be a tough defensive battle throughout, and has a chance to go all the way to seven games. It should be plenty of fun. The Hornets just have a level of lineup flexibility and and well-rounded play that I don't think the Heat can match. Miami will be relying a lot on young players and rookies - Wade is still the star, but it remains to be seen if he can keep up a high level of play over an entire series. Winslow, Whiteside and Richardson will have to do big things for their team, and it may be too soon for them.
Hornets in six.