The Charlotte Hornets won’t lose by 32 points again Wednesday night. That I can guarantee – they have too much pride to play that badly in the playoffs twice in a row against Miami.
But if the Hornets lose at all, they fall into an 0-2 hole and would limp back home needing to win four of the final five games to take this first-round playoff series. That’s close to impossible. Historically, NBA teams that take a 2-0 lead in a best-of-7 series go on to win the series 94 percent of the time.
So how could the Hornets steal Game 2? They will have to improve on all five of these areas:
1) Defensive Organization. It is almost unfathomable how awful the Hornets were on defense while allowing Miami to score 123 points Sunday. Miami averaged 1.43 points per offensive possession.
“That would be the highest points per possession of any NBA team in any NBA game this year,” Clifford said Tuesday at practice. “So yeah, they rocked us.”
From the short-corner 3-pointers that came early from Luol Deng to the incessant alley-oop dunks from Hassan Whiteside off pick-and-rolls, this was Charlotte’s most obvious failing. The Hornets played well enough on offense to win, Clifford said, even averaging slightly more points per possession than they did during their48-win regular season.
But the defense was atrocious. So Clifford doesn’t plan to make any offensive-based lineup switches – like subbing Al Jefferson back into the starting lineup for Cody Zeller – because what he needs most is good defense. Zeller, in particular, must be stronger.
2) The “Try Harder” Factor. The Hornets looked nervous Sunday and, when it went poorly right from the outset, seemed to retreat into a shell.
“They just outworked us,” Jefferson said. “They dominated the game from the opening tip.... We didn’t have that intensity like they had. I thought that was the biggest difference.”
When asked specifically how the defense could improve, Clifford said: “We’ve got to try harder, for one. We have to have more readiness to play.... We were the ninth-best defensive team in the NBA (in the 2015-16 regular season).... I think we’ll bounce back well. We’ve been resilient all year. I think we have prideful guys. They want to play better and I think we will.”
3) Kemba > Dragic, So Exploit It. The Kemba Walker-Goran Dragic matchup can’t end in a tie, or worse. Dragic actually outplayed Walker Sunday – Walker outscored Dragic 19-9, but Dragic had 10 assists to Walker’s one and ran his team more fluidly. That can’t happen. Point guard is the one spot in this series where you can clearly say Charlotte should have the advantage.
“I have to be better,” Walker said. “I have to set a toughness, a tone.... They made us run our offense really far out. We’ve got to bring the fight to them.”
4) Get Whiteside Out Of The Stratosphere. Whiteside, a 7-foot Gastonia native, had 21 points and 11 rebounds in a monstrous Game 1 for Miami. That was somewhat out of character (in a good way) for a player who was training at Charlotte’s Dowd YMCA and trying desperately to get back into the league in 2014. In four regular-season games against Charlotte, he averaged 9.3 points and 7.8 rebounds.
Whiteside would have loved to have played for Charlotte once upon a time. His agent did try to hook him up with a tryout for the Hornets in 2014 (as well as with every other NBA team). A team source says the Hornets – who get dozens of calls like that every week from agents who believe they represent NBA-ready players – did indeed get the “Want Hassan?” call but passed. So did 28 other NBA teams, to their chagrin.
Whiteside will be a force throughout the entire series, but Charlotte has to bother him more when he has the ball. It would also help if Jefferson can get him into foul trouble. Watch for the Hornets to play the pick-and-roll differently on defense in Game 2 so that Whiteside no longer gets uncontested dunks.
5) Courtney Lee vs. Dwyane Wade. Lee, the Hornets’ midseason acquisition, scores a modest 8.9 points per game. He starts because he can be so good defensively. Wade, though, turns his game up every postseason and did so again Sunday, with 16 points and seven assists. It’s doubtful Miami will get 52 combined points out of Deng and Whiteside in another game in this series.
But it’s quite probable Wade could score 25-30 on any given night, and you know that’s where the ball is going in the fourth quarter in a tight game. Lee is Charlotte’s best chance at keeping D-Wade under enough control to allow Charlotte a chance to climb back into this series.