There’s widespread admiration for the work that Steve Clifford has done with the Hornets, admiration that comes across whenever the Heat staff speaks of him — regularly calling him a “coach’s coach” — and admiration seems genuine on the part of his own players as well.
“He’s probably one of the smarter coaches I ever played for,” Al Jefferson said, after the Hornets’ 96-80 Game 3 win against the Heat, which trimmed Miami’s series lead to 2-1.
The smartest coaches know they don’t have a monopoly on bright ideas, especially with a couple of all-time NBA superstars within shouting distance. And so, when Clifford’s coaching counterpart, Erik Spoelstra, made an in-game adjustment that Kemba Walker and other Hornets found “odd,” Clifford summoned the wisdom that Hornets assistant Patrick Ewing and Hornets owner Michael Jordan have been offering in regard to rookie Frank Kaminsky.
“What’s funny is that Patrick and I talked two days ago, and he’s always saying we have to post Frank,” Clifford said. “He’s right. I always go into the game [saying] we’re going to post Frank, and I don’t always do it. [Friday] I talked to Michael, and he said, ‘I’d think about posting Frank some.’ If you have two first ballot Hall of Famers and they both say you’ve got to post Frank, [shoot], you better post Frank.”
So that’s what the Hornets did some in the third quarter, as the No. 9 overall pick, filling in for sidelined do-everything forward Nicholas Batum, scored 13 of his 15 points, and 13 of Charlotte’s 26 as a five-point halftime lead became 17. This occurred after Spoelstra, trying to protect Goran Dragic from picking up his fourth foul, slid Dragic off Walker, moving Luol Deng to cover Walker, Dragic to handle Courtney Lee and the 6-4 Wade to corral the 6-11 Kaminsky.
The Hornets were perplexed by the alignment and a bit insulted.
“There’s mismatches all over the place with that,” Lee said. “We utilized Kemba using his quickness in pick-and-rolls on Deng, and then Frank started to post-up. It worked to our benefit. Hopefully, they keep it up. I’ve seen the off-guard guard Kemba before, but not in the sense of a guard then [switching] to guard a big man.”
It should be noted that Walker made just 1 of 9 shots in the quarter, so Deng stifled him to some degree. But Kaminsky, who attempted just one field goal and scored just four points in the first two games, got some confidence and rhythm.
“I think [Kaminsky] felt a little disrespect when they put small guys on him,” Jefferson said. “They forgot that Frank used to post up a lot in college.”
It’s been easy to forget what Kaminsky did during his college career at Wisconsin, where he won the Naismith Award for best collegiate player as a senior. He was 11th in minutes among the first 13 players in the 2015 draft, ahead of only Orlando’s Mario Hezonja and Utah’s Trey Lyles, and well behind Miami’s Justise Winslow, taken one pick later.
Still, Clifford bucked convention and — rather than inserting a more natural small forward like Jeremy Lamb for Batum — thought it best to go big to start, explaining that “size has been an issue for us.” And after dismissing this possibility during the first two games in Miami, he put Jefferson in the lineup at center ahead of Cody Zeller to make Hassan Whiteside work more. That meant Jefferson, Kaminsky and Marvin Williams as the front line.
“He texted me this morning,” Kaminsky said of Clifford. “So it was one of the first things I saw. I had a chance to think about it all day.”
It didn’t look so good early, as Deng got rolling, making his first four three-point shots. “I was playing for pride after that,” Kaminsky said. “I didn’t start the game well. I was nervous a little bit.”
He wasn’t doing much on offense either: 0-for-2 at halftime. But the Heat had given him a peek at a different look just before the break, one that Kaminsky discussed with teammates in the locker room. Then Kaminsky was surprised to see that the Heat stuck with Wade on him to start the second half.
“You know, that’s just the way it goes,” he said. “You play the matchups. I’m just thankful that Coach saw they were guarding me with someone that was way shorter than me, and I was able to attack and get going.”
Dragic, Wade and Spoelstra all downplayed the significance later. Spoelstra said, of Wade guarding Kaminsky, “Obviously, it didn’t go great, but whatever. We have to be able to defend whatever the matchups were.”
Nor was it just the defense. Miami committed 14 turnovers to the Hornets’ four, made two fewer free throws than Charlotte even with eight fewer attempts and shot worse than in any game this season. So the Heat might have lost anyway, on a night that Clifford, Kaminsky, Jordan and Ewing were too much to overcome.