Goran Dragic has averaged 17.3 points and 6.7 assists, and played like a free man in the Heat’s uptempo attack since the All-Star break. He also has been better defensively than most give him credit for — holding opposing shooters to a team-leading 3.7 percent below their average. Kemba Walker, Charlotte’s leader in scoring (20.9) and assists (5.2), has still put up good numbers (19.5 points, 5.3 rebounds, 5.3 assists) in four games against the Heat. He has been especially deadly from behind the three-point arc (103 of 23, 43.5 percent). Walker also has held Dragic to 10.3 points per game in head-to-head matchups. In the end, Walker will have the ball in his hands in the fourth quarter, and it will be up to Dragic and others to stop him.
Dwyane Wade had a rough shooting night (3 for 13) against Courtney Lee in March, and has averaged only 16 points, 2.8 rebounds, 4.3 assists and shot 43.3 percent against Charlotte in four games this season. But Wade’s 152 career playoff starts are more than the Hornets have combined (123). Lee (6-5, 200) is the only player on Charlotte’s roster to have played in the NBA Finals (2009 with Orlando). He is not a high-volume shooter (8.1 field goal attempts per game) and averaged just 9.6 points this season. But he can knock down three-pointers (37.8 percent) and become a problem for Wade if he’s not on his game defensively. Still, Wade, Miami’s fourth-quarter closer, gets the edge here because he’s worth more in crunch time. Wade is a team-leading plus-63 in clutch situations this season.
Hornets seventh-year swingman Nicolas Batum was one of only six players in the league to average at least 14 points, six rebounds and five assists this season (LeBron James, James Harden, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Draymond Green were the others). Batum posted one of his two triple-doubles (11-11-11) in Charlotte’s blowout win at home over the Heat on Dec. 9. He had the second-highest plus/minus (plus-38) of any Hornets player against the Heat this season. Batum, who missed Charlotte’s final regular-season game with a sprained left ankle, is a decent defender (he held opposing shooters to 1.8 percent below their season average). But at 6-8, 200 pounds, he’s giving up 40 pounds to Miami’s Joe Johnson (6-7, 240) in one-on-one battles. Johnson averaged 15.3 points, shot 53.6 percent from the field and 46.2 percent from three-point range in three games against Charlotte this season.
When it comes to the battle of stretch fours, Marvin Williams (6-9, 237) has given the Heat more fits than Luol Deng (6-9, 220) has given the Hornets. Williams has made 10 of his 20 three-point attempts against Miami, averaged 16.8 points and 5.8 rebounds and posted a team-best plus-39 against the Heat. Those are better numbers than Deng’s (12 points, 4.8 rebounds) in the season series. But Deng has played much better since moving to power forward after the All-Star break, leading the Heat in plus/minus (plus-144) and averaging 15.2 points and 8.1 rebounds per game. He also had a team-leading 22 points and nine rebounds in Charlotte’s 109-106 win at AmericanAirlines Arena on March 17. The Hornets gave up the third-fewest points in the paint this season in the NBA. But with the slashing Deng at power forward in that last meeting, the Heat scored 58 points against Charlotte inside the paint.
Hassan Whiteside’s rebounding average (7.8) against the Hornets was his worst against any opponent this season. His 9.3 points per game against Charlotte ranks as his fourth-lowest scoring average. But Whiteside still managed to average four blocks a game in the series — primarily because he had 10 points, 10 rebounds and 10 blocks in a Feb. 5 win in Charlotte. The Heat needs that Whiteside to show up in this series. The Hornets will probably opt to start Cody Zeller (7-0, 240) against Whiteside. Zeller has averaged 7.0 points, 6.3 rebounds and 23.4 minutes against the Heat in four games. But the real troublemaker in the paint for Miami is Al Jefferson, who has averaged 19 points, 7.5 rebounds and shot 60 percent against the Heat in two games this season. Jefferson has often left Whiteside in his dust with spin moves and jump hooks in the post. As good as Whiteside is at defending the rim, if Jefferson continues to light him up in the playoffs the Heat could be extinguished quickly.
Based solely on plus/minus, the Heat (plus-87) had the fifth-best bench in the NBA this season and the Hornets (plus-31) ranked ninth. But a big reason for that was Whiteside. Since his return to the starting lineup on April 10, the Heat’s bench averaged an NBA-low 19.7 points and shot just 36.2 percent over its final three games. Charlotte ranked seventh in the league in bench points (37.5) for the season. Jeremy Lin (11.7 points per game) and Jefferson (12.0 points, 6.4 rebounds), Jeremy Lamb (8.8 points), Frank Kaminsky (7.5 points) and PJ Hairston (6.0 points) are all part of that bench rotation. It’s unclear whom coach Erik Spoelstra will turn to when he sits Whiteside. It could be Josh McRoberts, Amar’e Stoudemire or Udonis Haslem. Rookies Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson, the Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month for March, figure to get the bulk of minutes off the bench for the Heat either way. Richardson can knock down plenty of threes, and Winslow can defend just about any position on the floor. But there’s not nearly as much offense on the Heat’s bench as there is for Charlotte.
Steve Clifford, who has worked under Stan Van Gundy and Jeff Van Gundy, has turned Charlotte’s franchise around over the past three seasons. The Hornets have had the fewest turnovers in the NBA each of the past three seasons and have been one of the best defensive teams in the league. This year, they’ve become one of the best three-point shooting teams, too, and won 15 more games than a season ago. Spoelstra deserves some credit, too. After losing Chris Bosh at the All-Star break, the Heat posted the fifth-highest winning percentage in the league (19-10). The Hornets (21-8) were slightly better. Still, this is the playoffs and Spoelstra has the experience.