There is a tendency in a playoff series for fans and media to mistake anthills for the Andes. Coaches and players sometimes do the same, overreacting to the peril of a particular matchup, springing other leaks while trying to plug a single hole.
That’s part of what happened Saturday to the Heat, as the Hornets cut the series deficit to 2-1. Perhaps the time before Monday’s Game 4 allowed for some perspective — that the fear of Kemba Walker, at least in that instance, is even more problematic than Walker himself has been.
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Naturally, the 6-foot point guard ranked as a giant concern entering the series. He’s tough, talented and clutch — just ask any of the ballers who battled him in the Bronx, or any of the collegians he and UConn beat during a magical 11-game run through the Big East and NCAA Tournaments in 2011.
Yet, even coming off his most efficient NBA season, he still has streaky shooting stretches. Sure, he’s averaging 21.7 points in this series. But that’s only because he’s perfect on 17 free throw attempts, and taking nearly four more field goals than in the regular season. He’s making just 36.1 percent of those, including 23.5 percent (4 of 17) from three-point range.
“At the end of the day, Kemba, he’s going to get his points,” Heat point guard Goran Dragic said, after he shot 4 of 13 to Walker’s 4 of 19, but was outscored 17 to 11. “But the important thing is how many shots he is going to take. It was good defense on him. We need to do a better job on those other guys, role players.”
They do, and that actually starts with Dragic. Saturday, his foul trouble was the first domino in Miami’s downfall. The worry of Walker drawing another compelled Erik Spoelstra to overadjust, sliding Luol Deng down to cover Walker, Dragic up to the more stationary Courtney Lee and Dwyane Wade way up to role-playing Frank Kaminsky, who then got rolling.
That must be avoided. If Miami can play the matchups straight up, it will win this series; even without Chris Bosh, the Heat is more talented in total. That means Dragic handling Walker whenever ball-hawking rookie Josh Richardson isn’t in the backcourt with him.
That matchup doesn’t scare Dragic, though he did joke Sunday that “it’s easier to guard Courtney than Kemba, for sure, for me.” Dragic, for all his off-court grinning and graciousness, has a feisty side, evident when he tussled with Evan Turner in Boston 10 days ago, and evident again when he had words with Walker in Saturday’s third quarter.
“If I’m honest, I don’t care what other people think about me,” Dragic said. “If they think I’m soft, or they think I’m tough. The only thing that matters if what my teammates are thinking about me, my coaches, and my family. I know that I’m not going to back off. But that with Kemba was nothing. I didn’t even understand what he was saying. I just turned around. And we were just close.”
Many people — even Heat fans — seem to think of Dragic as a subpar defender, but that’s not really close to reality anymore. This season, he held his assignment 3.6 percentage points what that player typically shoots. He credits that to the Heat’s increased emphasis compared to his Phoenix days (”sometimes I had nobody to teach me, how to be positioned”), and to his own attention, especially early this season.
“I said, OK, if I cannot be successful on offense at that time, I need to be somewhere else,” Dragic said.
Where Dragic needs to be, to help, is on the court. That’s where the fouls came in. The first, just 2:17 in, wasn’t his fault. Deng was stripped, Walker caught the ball and raced the other way. Dragic, backpedaling, tried to resist near the rim.
Walker drew Dragic’s second, too. It was iffy. “I mean, I was on the side, he jumped into me,” Dragic said.
The third foul came against Walker’s backup, Jeremy Lin, with 7:39 left in the second quarter. “It was all me,” Dragic said. “I shouldn’t reach on that one. Just try to be more focused. Not try to get those cheap fouls. Try to stay solid.”
If he can, the Heat can stay more conventional. Perhaps Spoelstra should have, anyway. One way? By authorizing Dragic, once he had three fouls, to go under screens rather than over them. After all, Walker’s jumper has been wayward.
“I think I played great,” Walker said, noting one of his better defensive efforts of the season. “I didn’t shoot well, but we still got to win by a good amount of points. I think I impacted the game in many different ways.”
He did, mostly by getting the Heat on its heels, and out of whack. The Heat will need to control him, for sure, but also the urge to overreact.