CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The four-year dream of this franchise lived for about 15 minutes on Saturday night. All the rebuilding, all the losses had led to this chance — the opportunity to prove the Bobcats belonged in the hunt and this wasn’t just a fruitless playoff run.
Rap lyrics like "started from the bottom, now we’re here" and "can’t worry about the past cause that was yesterday" emitted from the speakers overhead.
With a 35-28 lead, the sell-out crowd was into it, Big Al Jefferson was carving up the Heat on one leg, and it actually looked like they could steal one in Charlotte and at least make Miami sweat a bit heading into Game 4.
Then, LeBron James did what he’s done to so many teams in the playoffs over the last three years — he put the Heat on his back for a 30-11 run to end the half and sent the Bobcats back to the only 3-0 playoff hole this franchise has ever known with a 98-85 win.
The last nine straight points James scored to end the half proved particularly demoralizing. After Kemba Walker scored a driving mid-range bucket with 15 seconds left to pull the Bobcats within seven before the half, James drove to the rim and finished a layup, then popped out to the wing, leaped and stole Gerald Henderson’s push-ahead pass and shot a three drawing the foul from Henderson as the clock expired. He knocked down all three free throws and, just like that, a team that struggles to generate offense was down 12 entering the half to the two-time defending champs, owners of the second-most efficient offense in the league. In other words, the lights were turned out on the Bobcats’ dim chances of potentially making this a series.
"Obviously, we butchered the last 3.5 minutes of the first half — four missed free throws, a point blank layup that gets stripped, a bad foul, and then obviously the play at the end of the half," said head coach Steve Clifford. "So what could have been anywhere from three to six points at the half ended up being 12."
It was as much about the Heat’s defense as it was their offense. They forced three turnovers and didn’t allow Jefferson to get the ball once in the post during that stretch.
"They just turned up the heat, man," said Jefferson. "And we didn’t respond well."
A second-half blowout ensued with the lead ballooning as high as 26 in the second half. Part of it wasn’t just talent, but the Heat looked more experienced and equipped to deal with a deficit than the Bobcats did. That’s no surprise considering the Bobcats have played just seven playoff games in their franchise’s history.
"I think we saw [the difference in playoff experience] in game one," said Jefferson. "Of course we knew going in they had experience, but we felt like every time we played them we had a chance to win."
That’s now 19 straight, though, that the Bobcats have lost to the Heat and at some point you have to wonder if the Heat are just in the Bobcats’ head. How do you ever feel confident with a lead against this Heat team when they’ve never been able to hold one in the history of the Big Three era?
The Heat’s defensive strategy was really pretty simple throughout: Get the ball out of Walker’s hands as soon as possible. They doubled as soon as he crossed halfcourt and basically lived on the premise that the Bobcats wing players couldn’t score or consistently get the ball to Al Jefferson. They were right. Jefferson scored 15 points on 7-of-9 shooting in the first but only had five points and four shot attempts the rest of the way.
"To be honest we just didn’t respond well to their ball pressure," said Clifford. "They got up into us and we’re a ball movement pick-and-roll type team, and we don’t have guys that are going to break those guys down. The ball can’t stick, can’t stick. We don’t have those type of players, and they made it hard to do that. "
Part of the reason the ball is sticking is the reliance on Walker and Jefferson. What the Heat have basically proved was if you take Jefferson and Walker out of the pick and roll and don’t allow Walker to initiate the offense, then the Bobcats can’t get the ball to Jefferson on the block consistently. Their wings struggle to create off the bounce and with Jefferson being the main key to the Bobcats offense, the Heat are just fronting him and hoping the double on Walker has time to recover and the weakside help gets over in time when they try to throw it over the top. Part of the problem is Gerald Henderson and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist aren’t shooters, so the Heat are aggressively slacking to bring weakside help. The Bobcats have tried to counter that with Gary Neal and Anthony Tolliver’s perimeter shooting but neither has proven the ability this series to create off the bounce and make them pay for getting up and out on them. Few have the length and quickness to execute this system consistently but the Heat do.
"We have to find ways to score the basketball. When they front Al and double me, we just have to find better ways to score," said Walker. "Defensively, we have to play the defense we are capable of."
Now, one game from elimination, the Bobcats have a day to find an answer that they seemed incapable of finding on Saturday. Making it more difficult — Jefferson’s clearly not himself. He’s refused to use it as an excuse, but the limp is noticeable and it hasn’t progressed. That makes it even more difficult to counter what the Heat are trying to do defensively.
"He’s a shell of himself but he’s still a handful down there," said Clifford. "He doesn’t have the same mobility and they did a good job of taking him away."
The same couldn’t be said for the Bobcats’ defense on James. He had 30 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and is now averaging 29.6 points, 8.3 rebounds and 5 assists on 56.8 percent shooting. It’s the difference in having your best player be able to create his shot off the dribble and having a best player who needs others to be able to get him the ball in scoring position like Jefferson.
"That greatness, we don’t take it for granted," said Miami head coach Erik Spoelstra. "He does it on a nightly basis, and sometimes he makes it look so easy."
He made it anything but for the Bobcats on Saturday and that’s why the Heat are now 48 minutes from ensuring the Bobcats franchise remains winless in the playoffs.
"The guys understand what’s at stake: You don’t want the series to go longer than it needs to and leave it up to chance," said Spoelstra.
The Bobcats understood what was at stake, but it didn’t matter. Talent wins in the playoffs and the Heat were too good; the separation still too much. Unless the Bobcats can find some wing scoring between now and Monday, don’t expect that to change in Game 4.