Things clearly didn’t go the Hornets’ way in game 1 against the Heat, getting shellacked by 32 points. One might assume the Heat are a far superior team and the series might as well be over after that kind of performance. However, the numbers over the course of the entire season point to this being the most competitive and evenly matched first round series. If that’s the case, and I believe it is, what went wrong and how fixable is it? In this case, the tape is far more instructive than the numbers.
The Heat built the cushion they would need for the entire game in the 1st quarter, outscoring the Hornets 41-22. That lead begins and ends with Luol Deng’s performance, who played the entire quarter and went 5-5 including 3-3 on 3 pointers and scoring 14 points. Of those 5 makes only 2 were contested. The other 3 were defensive lapses: a miscommunication on a switch, a transition 3 after Frank saved the ball to the wrong team, and a drive when the defense failed to get organized after an offensive rebound. While Deng is a good player, Charlotte shot themselves in the foot and allowed him to get his points.
For the Hornets to be competitive, Marvin Williams will need to play Deng to a draw. Instead he missed all 3 of his attempts, all of which were good shots that he’s been making all season. Other than Batum, the rest of the team didn’t pick up the offensive slack, though offense wasn’t the problem. The Hornets were getting good shots, they just weren’t going down. Miami pressured the perimeter heavily, to the point of over-extending the defense and leaving paths to the rim that Charlotte was able to take advantage of at times. Creating shots wasn’t the problem, it was making them. The whole team failed to convert open lay-ups, short runners, and free-throws.
Overall, the effort was just not there considering the stakes. Bad communication, boxing out an area rather than boxing out a body, trying to tip rebounds rather than go up with 2 hands and grab them, lack of second effort… It wasn’t pretty but the Hornets need only look in the mirror to see why they lost. Whether it was Batum letting Justise Winslow fly around for offensive boards or Jefferson failing to recover to his man for a rebound after helping on a pick-and-roll, the mental and physical effort just wasn’t there in a way that would off-set the poor shooting performance.
Aside from Deng, Dwyane Wade had a terrific game. Clifford gave Jeremy Lin a chance to guard him in the first quarter and it did not go well. While Lin has plenty of upper body strength, his base and core could not handle Wade’s post game. Rather than holding his ground with a strong base, Lin was leaning on Wade to use his upper body and Wade feasted on it, spinning every which way and getting whatever he wanted. This wasn’t the only mismatch.
But enough with the words, what did the video show? Frankly, poor communication. Here you can see Kemba do the right thing on a Dragic-Stoudemire side pick-and-roll. He helps off his man on the other side of the court, tagging Stoudemire to muck up his roll, while Frank slides down so he can recover to either shooter if the ball gets kicked out.
Stoudemire abandons his roll and steps out to give Dragic and outlet, then swings the ball to Deng who has repositioned himself to provide a kick-out option. Frank follows him while Al hangs back, prepared for a Stoudemire post-up or a Deng drive. Lee follows his man, Winslow, and all Kemba needs to do is get back to Richardson. Excellent, typical Clifford defense. Until Kemba hesitates, caught in no-man’s land and looking around, leaving Richardson wide open.
Kemba does a solid job recovering, but Richardson never should have had a shot. The defense has done its job but a failure to communicate with Kemba, coupled with his own hesitation, lets the defense down.
At the end of the first quarter, with Dragic racing up the court, the defense again fails to communicate. I honestly have no idea what Jeremy Lin is doing here. I would guess he’s trying to anticipate the Stoudemire screen in an effort to get over it but he turns his back to his man, leaving a free lane to the rim. He and Jefferson have to do a better job of communicating what their coverage is supposed to be.
Transition communication was just as bad as half-court communication. In basketball, the guy with the ball is the only one that can actually score points, so maybe guard him.
The physical effort was just as concerning as the lack of communication. Despite having 9/10 of their feet in the paint on this shot attempt, the Hornets failed to get this rebound and, after several tips, Deng got the put-back:
The lack of effort wasn’t just on rebounding. Here, Batum ices the side pick-and-roll and while Cody doesn’t do a great job containing Wade as he snakes back in front of the pick, Charlotte has 3 defenders in help position. Lin in particular has already left Richardson open to help, to the point he won’t be able to recover, but fails to take one more step and cut off the drive. Instead Lin, Walker, and Williams watch Wade convert an easy lay-up.
Batum isn’t doing anything to dispel the soft European stereotype here when he walks into a screen that Deng never had any intention of setting.
Rather than taking one step up to pressure the ball, he allows himself to get screened.
Marvin Williams, realizing what Batum is doing, has to change directions and hustle back to contain the drive, only to get smashed by a Haslem screen. Cody does a decent job preventing the easy lay-up, but Wade is able to convert a tough turn-around at the elbow like he has a thousand times before in his career.
If it’s a botched switch, it’s poor communication as Marvin Williams clearly had no idea that was happening. I’m not convinced. Batum needs to step up and, if that screen hits him, he needs to shrug it off and not get dragged out of the play by it.
So the bad news: Charlotte got creamed. The good news: it’s easily fixable. I’m not convinced there were any serious schematic failures. There were concerns about the way Charlotte played pick-and-rolls, seeming to show hard more than dropping back, but I didn’t see that on tape. Cody has always done more hedging than Jefferson, especially on the sides. Here you can see that type of defense:
The problem isn’t the hedge. Batum and Cody are in good position to cause a turnover or a timeout with no real outlet in sight and only 9 seconds left on the shot-clock. The strategy is sound. The execution fails though. They leave a seam in the trap, allowing Joe Johnson to step through with an escape dribble and hit Deng for an open 3. Close that seam and that pass never happens. Good strategy, bad execution.
The effort wasn’t there and shots weren’t going in. In the second quarter, the defense improved and held Miami to 26 points. With an offensive flurry the Hornets could have been right back in it by half-time.
Here, Lin helps off his man to stop a Whiteside roll to the basket. Making Whiteside make decisions with the ball in his hand outside the restricted area is a winning proposition most of the time.
Basic pick-and-roll defense here as Jefferson walls off the paint and Lin fights over the pick, forcing Dragic to snake back in front of Whiteside, taking him out of the play and resulting in a tough, missed step-back jumper. Stan Van Gundy would be proud of that wall of defense.
I don’t think there’s anything magic Clifford and Co. need to do, the team just needs to be more focused and on a collective string defensively. Grab rebounds with 2 hands, put a body on someone when a shot goes up, keep moving offensively, talk constantly, and make your shots. That’s not to say the team can’t make adjustments. 2 things stood out to me when re-watching the game, one offensively and one defensively.
On offense, Charlotte needs to get downhill. The Heat perimeter defenders are being very aggressive. Cody was able to drive right by Whiteside for a dunk because nobody was below the free-throw line. Aggressive attacks lead to buckets and fouls to the tune of 37 attempts to the Heat’s 21 attempts. Cody was as effective as a roll man as I think I’ve ever seen him. Whiteside can dominate physically, so you have to make him think and make decisions. When that happened, Charlotte often won. When they went straight at him, he was able to contest. Just keep attacking.
The biggest defensive adjustment involves some interesting action only Miami runs (that I remember). After multiple screens, they’ll get Wade or Johnson the ball at the elbow and immediately have Whiteside set a ball screen below the foul line.
This forces Whiteside’s man (Cody here) to corral the ball handler (Wade) or leave a free rim run. With a shooter in the strong side corner (Richardson) and so little space between the screen and the basket, Lin is unable to bump Whiteside before he’s at the rim.
Whiteside’s length makes it easy to pass over the top, even someone like Batum, so a switch still leaves Charlotte at a disadvantage. What’s left is an easy pass over the top and a lay-up for Whiteside.
This action repeatedly gave Charlotte trouble and will have to be addressed. To me, the best thing would be to have Batum deny Wade the screen, no easy task considering how quickly they get into the screen-roll once Wade gets the ball. If Batum can beat Whiteside to the spot and force Wade back towards the sideline/baseline, Cody doesn’t have to compromise his position on Whiteside and can drop back. Batum would have to recover in a hurry and use his length to bother any drive or shot by Wade. Otherwise Cody is stuck between contesting Wade and blocking the rim run by Whiteside. Lin might have to dig down a little to stop the drive without compromising his ability to defend the corner 3.
Spoelstra is a smart coach and this elbow screen-roll caused some serious defensive problems as Charlotte failed both in effort and communication. That being said, it’s not unguardable and I expect Clifford & Co. to have a solution.
I thought re-watching this game would be torture. I was pleasantly surprised. Charlotte can and will be better, both offensively and defensively. Increase the effort and communication, look to attack downhill offensively, and clean up some small schematic issues defensively and the Hornets will be right back in this series.