NBA playoffs: Bobcats-Heat preview

Al Jefferson and the Bobcats were 0-4 against the Heat this season.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — This is the worst-case playoff scenario for the Bobcats. The two-time defending champion Miami Heat now await — the same Miami Heat team that went 4-0 against them in the regular season — and Miami gets Dwyane Wade back healthy just in time to make a run.  It’s a far cry from a matchup with Toronto the Bobcats could have slid into if they could have held on to their late season push for the six seed. They’ll be substantial underdogs — the type of playoff series upset that would go down as one of the biggest in NBA history — but that’s exactly what the Bobcats want.

"The only thing that we’re worried about is what’s going on right here," said Al Jefferson. "They didn’t give us a chance in October. We were just going to be last in the East, last in the league. They didn’t give us a chance. We don’t worry about what they say outside of these walls."

The Bobcats did lose in overtime once (104-96) and only by a point in another of the losses, so competing isn’t the issue. But close losses get you out of the playoffs quick, and finding an answer of how to close these guys out has been elusive. 

Series Schedule

Game 1 – Sun April 20, Charlotte at Miami, 3:30 p.m.
Game 2 – Wed April 23, Charlotte at Miami, 7 p.m.
Game 3 – Sat April 26, Miami at Charlotte, 7 p.m.
Game 4 – Mon April 28, Miami at Charlotte, 7 p.m.
Game 5 * Wed April 30, Charlotte at Miami, TBD
Game 6 * Fri May 2, Miami at Charlotte, TBD
Game 7 * Sun May 4, Charlotte at Miami, TBD

Players to Watch

Al Jefferson, Charlotte: His coach thinks he is as important to his team winning as any player in the league and he just might be right.  But the Heat aren’t weak in the paint like their rebounding numbers would suggest. They don’t have an elite rim protector but they’re only giving up 41 points per game in the paint (11th in the NBA).  Jefferson didn’t play their initial meeting this year but is averaging 25.3 points and 15.3 rebounds per game on 57 percent shooting in three meetings against the Heat, including a massive 38-point, 19-rebound effort in Miami. 

"It’s hard to make a good argument that there’s been another player who has had a bigger impact on winning for his team than Al has for us in my opinion," said head coach Steve Clifford. "His consistency on what he’s added to our group has been exceptional."

Kemba Walker, Charlotte: Walker’s the straw that stirs the drink for this Bobcats team. When he’s on offensively, they have enough offensive firepower between he and Jefferson to compete with anyone in the league. He might be more important to the Bobcats than even Jefferson because you know Jefferson’s going to get his against this Miami Heat front.  

"Coach does a great job of putting me in pick-and-roll situations, and I just gotta execute," said Walker.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Charlotte: This is the type of moment the Bobcats drafted him for — a playoff series date with the perennial NBA MVP candidate. Bobcats’ brass thought he’d become the type of elite wing defender that would give them a chance against stars like James, and he’s become that type of defender. But he’s also the type of offensive liability and spacing killer that only allows Clifford to play him for 21 minutes per game in March and April. 

LeBron James, Miami: The Bobcats may have the league’s sixth ranked defense by points per possession, but they have had no answer for LeBron James. He roasted them for 61 points on 22-of-33 shooting, including 8-for-10 from deep, in their last meeting in early March.  In that game, the strategy was to let him shoot and try to control his drive. The strategy didn’t work but knowing Steve Clifford’s defensive principles, that’ll likely be their mindset in this series, too. 

Dwyane Wade, Miami: Which Dwyane Wade is going to show up? At times in the playoffs last year he looked like the type of second scoring option that won him a title in 2006 with James and makes the Heat pretty much unbeatable in a seven-game set. And others, he looked like a shell of himself, the type of transformation that would make him and the Heat vulnerable against anyone. He’s looked like the same old Wade that made him a perennial All-Star when he’s played this season but which Wade we’ll get this postseason no one knows. He’s only played in 53 games this season and only six over the last month. He’s the biggest wildcard of the series and the key to the Heat’s three-peat dreams.

Mario Chalmers, Miami: Ray Allen and Shane Battier aren’t getting any younger and it’s Chalmers time to step up for the Heat as their designated playoff perimeter sniper. He’s shooting 39 percent on the year, and it’s basically impossible to consistently control James and Wade’s dribble penetration. The shots are going to be there for Chalmers, and he’ll usually be one of the Bobcats last defensive concerns. The Bobcats aren’t great at defending the three either — sixth worst in the league at 37 percent — and their defensive strategy of defending the paint at all costs makes them vulnerable to perimeter bombing.

Key Matchup: Gerald Henderson against Dwyane Wade 

Unusual choice, maybe, but if the last month’s showed anything, it’s that the Heat are vulnerable and don’t have a ton of offensive firepower without Wade. Henderson’s a quality wing defender and if he can turn Wade into a non-factor, the Bobcats can make this a series. That’s a big if, though, considering Wade’s a three-time NBA champion, sure-fire Hall of Famer and is shooting 54 percent from the field on the year. You know if you’re Charlotte that James is going to get his, but you have to keep Wade from getting his, too, if you want to beat the Heat. 

Henderson against Wade is important for the Bobcats offense, too, because when he’s hitting from the perimeter, Henderson opens everything up. He’s averaging 14 points per game on the season but only shooting 43 percent from the field and 35 percent from deep. If he can up those numbers and become a consistent third scoring punch in this series, it’s the type of unexpected wildcard that could flip a series that everyone expects to end in four or five. 

X-Factor: Chris Bosh

Bosh buried the Bobcats in an early December one-point loss with three treys in the fourth quarter, and he’s a potent third scoring option. He’s the ideal guy to exploit this Bobcats defense that’s going to stop James dribble drive at all costs. If he can bury the pick and pop jumper and make the Bobcats pay for their defensive strategy of slacking Al Jefferson back on the pick and roll, Charlotte’s got no shot in this series. Bosh is also excellent defending the pick and roll because of his lateral quickness and the high pick and roll with Jefferson and Walker is the backbone of the Bobcats’ offense.

You know that the Heat are vulnerable on the glass, too, ranking 27th in the league in rebounding, so Bosh is critical. He’s their only post guy that plays more than 20 minutes a game and if they go small with James at power forward, he has to be able to rebound better than six boards per game. He’ll likely draw the Jefferson matchup at times, and Jefferson’s already proven what he can do to this Miami Heat frontcourt.