Hornets over Heat: the vindication of Steve Clifford

After Game 2 of his first-round Eastern Conference playoff series against the Miami Heat, Charlotte Hornet coach Steve Clifford had a lot to say.

Looking back on that statement, it’s very hard to contest the essential truths of Clifford’s points.

Charlotte scored 16 more points than the ice-cold Heat, frolicking to victory on a day when Kemba Walker was 4 of 19 from the field. The basic patterns and realities flowing from Saturday’s game underscored Clifford’s view not just of this series, but of the NBA itself, as manifested in other places.

Elaborate intellectual architectures can be built to reinforce Clifford’s way of seeing the basketball world, but they’re not necessary. Much of what Clifford said after Game 2 essentially boiled down to the view that the NBA is a make-or-miss league. You can dress that point in fancier verbal clothes, but that’s the heart of the story. Miami shot the cover off the ball in Games 1 and 2 at home, where it simply hasn’t lost very often over the past six weeks after being a very ordinary home team from November through January. The Heat shot at least 57 percent from the field on both of those nights.

Meanwhile, Charlotte role players such as Jeremy Lin and Marvin Williams couldn’t get many shots to drop at all. It’s not as though the series took shape only because of what the Heat did; the Hornets’ failures were very much a part of the mix.

Saturday in Game 3, the simple change of scenes — to North Carolina, away from South Florida — gave the Hornets a chance to hit the reset button. They couldn’t make this series into a 0-0 series on Saturday, but they now get a chance to do so in Game 4. They can even the slate and reduce this best-of-seven battle to a best-of-three spring, all because they took advantage of the comforts of home.

Everything about this series — with the exception of Luol Deng continuing to shoot the lights out — turned in Game 3.

If Lin and Williams struggled in Miami, they sure looked at home in Charlotte. They combined for 30 points and offered other contributions in facilitating the offense (Lin) and getting on the glass (Williams). The 30-point combined total was 19 more than what the pair produced in both Games 1 and 2.

Then consider Frank Kaminsky, who was shut out in Game 1 and managed only 4 points in Game 2. He played like a house of fire and ravaged the Heat on Saturday, posting 15 points and making his presence felt in a bigger lineup Clifford put on the floor.

We could really stop the whole discussion right there.

However, the regression experienced by the Heat — a team which attained such a high standard on their home floor — is just as relevant in the larger scheme of things.

If role players Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson were locked in at home, they were body-snatched in Game 3. Both players hit just one field goal apiece, and Richardson even missed the two free throws he earned.

Star players Dwyane Wade and Hassan Whiteside were so easily able to create offense in Games 1 and 2. In Game 3, Wade’s 17 points came on 20 field goal attempts, the antithesis of the efficiency he had established earlier in the week. Whiteside, who went 8 for 8 from the field in Game 2 and had established a pronounced comfort zone at the offensive end of the floor, attempted only six shots in Game 3 and made only three of them.

Miami has to confront its road problem — it might not have to solve it this round if it can continue to protect its home court, but it will have to figure things out against the Toronto Raptors (should the Raps advance) and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Should the Heat be concerned about “the road problem”? Certainly.

In Miami’s previous road game — Game 82 of the regular season against the Boston Celtics — the Heat watched an opponent hang a 20-0 third-quarter run on them.

On Saturday, the Heat stood by as Charlotte slapped an 18-0 bee sting on a roster which is throwing two rookies (Winslow and Richardson) into its core rotation. While the kids try to grow, veterans such as Joe Johnson — who was quiet in both Games 2 and 3 — will need to pick up the slack for Miami.

What had started as a runaway — and seemed likely to stay that way, given the injury to Charlotte’s Nic Batum (DNP on Saturday) — has turned into a dogfight. Miami handled its home floor without Chris Bosh, but Charlotte dealt very well with Batum’s injury in its own building on Saturday.

All in all, it seems Steve Clifford knows what he’s talking about… and this series hasn’t yet arrived at a moment when the final minute of a game is soaked in dramatic complexity.

About Matt Zemek

Editor, @TrojansWire | CFB writer since 2001 |