The Miami Heat averaged the fourth-fewest fouls in the NBA’s regular season.
But thus far in the playoffs, Jeremy Lin, Kemba Walker and the Charlotte Hornets have managed to turn the Heat into frustrated hacking machines. Miami, which hosts Game 5 on Wednesday night at 8 at AmericanAirlines Arena, has averaged five more fouls per game than it did in the regular season.
And if it feels like Walker and Lin are at the root of it all, you’re right. Lin has drawn 24 personal fouls in the series — as much as LeBron James and James Harden have through their first four playoff games. Walker has drawn 19 fouls, tied for 16th-most in the playoffs with Cleveland’s Kevin Love.
“We’ve probably fouled more in these four games than we have the last four weeks,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said after Miami posted a series-high 26 fouls in Monday’s series-tying, 89-85 Game 4 loss. “But you have to credit them. They’re aggressive and make you have to defend with position.”
Heat center Hassan Whiteside sees what Lin and Walker are doing to the Heat in a different way.
“They just get in the lane, throw their head back and the ref just says foul,” Whiteside said after TV cameras had left a disappointed Heat locker room. “This [is the] flop-offs. I thought the playoffs were physical. This ain’t physical.”
Dwyane Wade, who has played in enough postseason games to know how to avoid earning himself a fine, said what Whiteside said a little more diplomatically when asked how the Heat (whistled for 95 fouls compared to Charlotte’s 77) can turn the foul disparity in the series its favor.
“There’s nothing we can do about that,” Wade said. “That’s not our call. We’re playing an aggressive game. It’s the playoffs and we’re playing like we’re supposed to. Hopefully, it’ll change.”
Since the start of the series, Wade has maintained the Heat’s aggressive nature in guarding the Hornets is the right way to play. In order to prevent Charlotte, which averaged the fourth-most three-point attempts (29.4) and makes (10.6) during the regular season, from lighting them up beyond the arc, the Heat has made a concerted effort to be aggressive defensively on the perimeter.
It has worked in shutting the Hornets three-point game down. Charlotte is averaging only four three-point makes (fewest in the playoffs) on 17 attempts per game (23.5 percent).
But what it has also created, Hornets coach Steve Clifford said, is a need for Lin and Walker to make space for themselves and others off dribble penetration. Thus far, the Heat has been burned trying to do it. Miami’s defenders have either been whistled for fouls or Lin and Walker have lit the Heat up with an array of mid-range jumpers and layups.
Wade drew two fouls within 15 seconds in the first quarter Monday trying to defend Lin as soon as he came off the bench.
Heat point guard Goran Dragic, meanwhile, picked up four fouls in a span of 3:02 to start the third quarter. Dragic, who picked up two of those fouls trying to guard Lin and Walker, then picked up his fifth foul early in the fourth quarter fouling Lin as he drove to the basket for a three-point play. Dragic’s foul trouble resulted in him playing only 4:07 total in the second half.
As good as Charlotte was at hitting three-pointers in the regular season, Walker and Lin were equally good at drawing fouls off drives into the paint, ranking 19th and 25th respectively in total fouls drawn.
“It’s tough to stay in front of Kemba,” Dragic said. “But it is what it is. ... We have to do a better job communicating and close those gaps so they don’t see those open [spaces] and they don’t penetrate.”
On the other side of the court, meanwhile, the Hornets have clogged the paint so much they’ve turned the Heat into a jump-shooting team over the last two games.
Miami, which averaged 46.4 points in the paint in the regular season and 51 in the first two games of the series, was outscored 96-58 in the paint in Games 3 and 4.
The Heat also attempted 51 three-pointers — including a season-high 29 in Monday’s loss. There wasn’t another two-game stretch this season in which Miami hoisted that many threes.
Miami’s uptempo attack, which was so successful after the All-Star break, has been non-existent. In Monday’s loss, the Heat was outscored 9-0 in fastbreak points.
For a team whose coach emphasizes playing to its identity, the Heat has become a totally different team over its last two playoff games. The Hornets have too, but are winning playing a different style.
“If you would have told us four games into the series that we were able to hold the Hornets to under 20 three-point attempts four straight games, I don’t know we’d say we’d be tied right now,” Spoelstra said.
“But they’re being aggressive and really making our pick and roll defense have to contain them and be able to do it without fouling. Like I said, you just have to find a way to overcome that. They’re not going to give it up. We’re not going to give it up. That’s what competition is all about.”
Wednesday: Hornets at Heat
What: Eastern Conference first-round series, Game 5.
When/where: 8 p.m.; AmericanAirlines Arena.
TV/radio: TNT, SUN; WAXY 790, WRTO 98.3 FM (Spanish).
Series: Tied 2-2.
Scouting report: Hornets forward Nicolas Batum missed Games 3 and 4 with a strained left foot, and he is listed as questionable for Game 5. This is the first time since 2009 that the Heat have entered Game 5 of its first-round series in a 2-2 tie.