The Miami Heat begin the defense of their back-to-back NBA titles in earnest Sunday when they host playoff neophyte Charlotte at American Airlines Arena.
On paper, these teams couldn’t be more mismatched. In the last three seasons, the Heat have won 46 postseason games. In their 10-year history, the Bobcats have played in four postseason games, losing all of them.
When looking at their roster, Charlotte has 127 games worth of playoff experience … total. LeBron James has played in 138 postseason games by himself. More to the point, however, is that none of the Bobcats’ scant playoff experience was gained as members of the Bobcats … no one on the current roster was on the court while the Bobcats were being swept by Orlando in 2010 (Gerald Henderson was on the team, but did not play in the series).
That’s not all. The Heat have beaten the Bobcats 16 straight times, with the Bobcats’ last victory dating back to March 9, 2010—their playoff season. The Heat have a 16-point win in Charlotte this year and a 17-point win at home; they also have a one-point home-court victory and an overtime win at Time Warner Cable Arena. So Miami has won the close games and the blowouts and everything else in between.
The last time the teams played on March 3, James went off for a career-high 61 points in a 124-107 win for the Heat. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, considered a solid defender, will need a great deal of help if the Bobcats have any hope of containing James in this series.
So what could the Heat possibly have to worry about?
For starters, they have no one—other than possibly Greg Oden—with the physical skills to handle Al Jefferson down low. Jefferson proved to be worth every penny of the $41 million Michael Jordan laid out last summer to get him as a free agent, averaging 21.8 points and 10.8 rebounds per game and giving Charlotte a true center in a league that is becoming increasingly devoid of them.
Jefferson played in three of the four meetings with Miami this season (he missed the first while recovering from a sprained ankle sustained in the preseason) and he torched the Heat for 25.3 points and 15.3 rebounds on 57.4 percent shooting in those three games. Here are his logs from those three contests:
Lost in the glow of James’ 61-point explosion was that Jefferson went 18-for-24 and went for 38 points and 19 boards. Chris Bosh isn’t physical enough to guard him. Chris Andersen isn’t big enough to. And Oden is playing on papier mache knees, if he plays at all.
The other way the Bobcats could hurt the Heat is that if Miami pays too much attention to Jefferson. Charlotte has shooters who could make the Heat pay on kickouts, with Kemba Walker, Gerald Henderson and even Josh McRoberts capable of knocking down 3-pointers. And that’s not including Gary Neal, who the last time he took the court in a playoff game, it was in South Beach for Game 7 of the NBA Finals.
Charlotte’s offense is not heavily dependent on pick-and-roll sets. Jefferson is a true post-up center and Walker is given a lot of freedom to create in isolation situations … two offensive approaches that can give Miami trouble.
Charlotte is a good team that had one of the strongest finishes in the Eastern Conference (20-9 after the All-Star break) and the additions of Neal and Luke Ridnour at the trade deadline gave them veteran depth in the backcourt they had lacked over the first 3½ months of the season.
Make no mistake—the Bobcats of Steve Clifford (a Coach of the Year candidate if ever there was one) are not the 7-59 Bobcats of two seasons ago.
At the end of the day, expect the Heat to put away the Bobcats—there’s just too much big-game experience, too much talent and too much LeBron to think otherwise. But don’t be surprised if the soon-to-be-Hornets provide more push-back than some might anticipate.