Source: Mike DiNovo - USA TODAY Sports (via AtTheHive.com)
After two ugly losses in Miami, changes needed to be made for the Charlotte Hornets. Al Jefferson was one of the few bright spots in those early games, and he got the start in the next two games in place of Cody Zeller. Jefferson was joined in the starting lineup by rookie Frank Kaminsky, who had to step in for the injured Nicolas Batum. The two big men joining the lineup shifted the struggling Marvin Williams back to his original position of small forward. With the Heat making a big run in Game 2 after going small, it may have been expected for the Hornets to match that in an attempt to slow down their opponents. Instead, Charlotte went in the opposite direction and attempted to out-muscle them with size. The result was a pair of vital wins, saving the season and giving the Hornets a fighting chance after they looked dead on arrival earlier.
It’s easy to say that the lineup change was the reason for those wins – they got blown out in two games with the original lineup, and had two big wins in the games after the change. In reality, however, it’s unclear just how helpful those lineups were for the Hornets.
There were positives, of course. Jefferson didn’t exactly set the world on fire, but he was able to make some moves in the post and force Whiteside to spend time guarding a big man rather than lurking on the weak side, waiting to block a wing player’s shot. Kaminsky had an impressive performance in Game 3 with 15 points (13 of which came in the third quarter), followed by a miserable one in Game 4, in which he went 1-5 from the field and played defense that could only be called “mediocre” by the most generous descriptions. And Williams, whose struggles in Miami may have spurred a lineup change even before Batum’s injury, had a similar arc as Kaminsky – a good Game 3 followed by a return to form in the next.
All things considered, the lineup change didn’t actually seem to help the Hornets that much on either end of the floor. They actually shot better from the field in each of the first two games than they did in either of the latter two. Despite playing a bigger lineup, the Hornets got outrebounded both times in Charlotte and allowed the Heat to pull down 10 offensive rebounds in Game 3 and 12 in Game 4. Finally, the defense seemed to immediately improve whenever Zeller entered the game. The defense has been better when Kaminsky was on the floor than it was when he was off it, but it still didn’t compare to when Zeller played:
Source: Stats Courtesy of NBA.com/stats
Starting Zeller next to Jefferson presents its own set of problems, though. Kaminsky still hasn’t hit a three-pointer during the playoffs, but he at least provides a shooting threat that helps spread the floor. In his one year in the NBA, Kaminsky has made 68 threes and has shot almost 34% from behind the arc; Zeller has only attempted 12 in his three-year career. A Zeller/Jefferson combination would tank the spacing, and the Hornets might not be able to survive that.
Charlotte may be 2-0 with their shiny new starting lineup, but this seems like a prime example of the fact that correlation does not imply causation. Instead, the wins are more likely a result of the Heat’s shooting finally slowing down, which was likely caused by a combination of factors:
An unfriendly environment: This seems like the smallest factor in the Heat’s offensive woes, though it probably has had an effect. Erik Spoelstra’s team was very bad away from Miami this year, and the Hornets were pretty good at home. It’s always easier to play in front of your home fans, and that may have made a difference for the Heat so far.
Regression to the mean: Probably a major factor. The fact is that, despite the Hornets’ best efforts, Miami was just making shots at a ridiculous rate in the first two games. Charlotte’s defense may have tightened up since, but the Heat just weren’t likely to hit shots at the same rate as they did early (looking at you, Luol Deng). Look how high the shooting numbers were early in the series, and how they’ve regressed towards their regular season level:
Source: Stats Courtesy of NBA.com/stats
Of course, if the Hornets play poor defense or Miami just finds another hot streak as the series moves forward, the shooting numbers rise to dangerous levels again. With only two or three games remaining in the series, there’s not much room for error here.
Defensive scheme change: Whenever Justise Winslow entered the game, the Hornets played what has become known as the Tony Allen Defense: not guarding one of the opponents’ players, instead letting his man clog the paint and make things more difficult for the offense. Winslow was that player for Miami, and he was mostly unable to make the Hornets pay for their lack of respect for him. It worked to slow the Heat’s offense down and make it sputter to a halt for long stretches, and the Hornets took advantage.
Now, the series has become a best-of-three, with Miami retaining their home court advantage. After having no hope earlier in the series, the Hornets actually have a shot to move on to the second round. The Heat have finally slowed down offensively, Batum may return, and the Hornets still haven’t shot from the three-point line as well as they were used to in the regular season.
If Miami continues to shoot closer to their season average in Game 5 and Charlotte manages to find their three-point stroke, the Hornets would actually have a chance to close out the series on their home floor and move to the second round for the first time since their original stint in Charlotte.