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Series Preview: Can veteran Heat fend off young Hornets?

Charlotte's Kemba Walker could pose problems for Miami's defense

POSTED: Apr 15, 2016 8:56 AM ET

By Lang Whitaker

BY Lang Whitaker

NBA.com

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Heat vs. Hornets: By the Numbers

Go inside the numbers of the Heat-Hornets first-round matchup.

The Miami Heat are probably not supposed to be here, at least not this high up in the Eastern Conference hierarchy.

Last season, despite a deadline move for point guard Goran Dragic, the Heat waned and didn't qualify for the playoffs and finished 37-45, third in the Southeast Divison. But this season they found their footing, and even a late-season injury to All-Star power forward Chris Bosh couldn't slow them down.

In fact, since losing Bosh during the All-Star break, the Heat went 19-10, getting key contributions from late-season addition Joe Johnson. Similarly, last season was something of a bust for the Charlotte Hornets, who tried assimilating Lance Stephenson into their system, with less than optimal results. This season, with Stephenson dealt to the L.A. Clippers (and later, to the Memphis Grizzlies), the Hornets have embraced the 3-pointer, spreading the floor and averaging 103.2 points per game (10th in the NBA).

While the offense makes highlights, the Hornets have also been terrific defensively, typical for a Steve Clifford-coached team, finishing the season ninth in the NBA with a 101.8 defensive rating. (Oh and one spot above the Hornets defensively? The Miami Heat.) While Al Jefferson has struggled with injuries, missing roughly half the season, Kemba Walker has been terrific, making a case for the Kia Most Improved Player award. While the Heat are the higher seed here and will enjoy a home court advantage, the Hornets were able to split four games against Miami during the regular season.

The Heat will win if ...

Dwyane Wade steps up. Wade averaged 16 points in four games against the Hornets this season, and while the Heat had seven players who averaged double-figures against the Hornets, which suggests they shared the ball well against Charlotte. As well, Wade only got to the free throw line 3.5 times per game against the Hornets. As the pace tends to slow in the playoffs, Wade's ability to draw fouls and score from the line could prove important.

And with two teams that are both above average defensively matching up, buckets may be hard to come by at times. Which is precisely when Wade needs to shine. Also, Miami will need to show they can control the interior, particularly rebounding and defending the rim. Both Charlotte and Miami have plenty of wing players, with the Heat relying on a rotation including Wade, Luol Deng, Johnson, Gerald Green and Justise Winslow.

The Heat should have enough veteran poise and athleticism to hang with the Hornets along the outside, and Hassan Whiteside's ability to patrol the paint can make running Charlotte's 3-point shooters off the line a little less of a gamble, as Whiteside will be behind them to clean up mistakes. In Miami's Feb. 5 win against the Hornets, Whiteside came off the bench to post a triple-double, with ten points, rebounds and blocks.

The Hornets will win if......

They can dominate at the point of attack. Walker leads Charlotte's offense, and as he goes up against Miami's backcourt of Dragic and Wade, Walker will have to continually work to keep the pace alive that has made the Hornets such a dangerous team of late.

In four games against the Heat this season, Walker averaged 19.5 ppg, and 5.3 assists per game against just .8 turnovers. The Hornets also need consistent production from their wing players, especially Nicolas Batum and Marvin Williams, who combined to average 11 three-point attempts per game against the Heat. Making those shots consistently will demand attention from the Heat, scrambling Miami's defense and creating space for Walker to do work and get to the rim.

Al Jefferson made his Charlotte playoff debut two years ago with the then-Bobcats against LeBron James and the Heat, and just seconds into Game 1, he suffered a foot injury that literally hobbled him and the Hornets. While injuries have slowed Jefferson's attack this season, limiting him mostly to a bench role, Jefferson can still be one of the NBA's elite post players on the offensive end, and should provide a terrific challenge for Miami's Whiteside and Amar'e Stoudemire.

3 quick questions and answers

1. What's the latest on Chris Bosh?

Bosh has been out since the All-Star break, when the Heat announced he would miss time with blood clot issues. While Bosh has maintained a presence around the Heat, and said previously that he was optimistic he could return this season, the Heat have not put a public timetable on his return. Obviously, while the Heat have played admirably without him, adding a player of Bosh's caliber at this point in the season could be a huge bump for the Heat.

2. Who wins the back-up point guard battle?

Miami has turned rookie back-up point guard Josh Richardson into a dangerous option off the bench. While playing time was initially slow to come by, Richardson was named the Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month for March, as he averaged 12 points and 2.0 assists. Meanwhile, behind Walker the Hornets turn to Jeremy Lin, who has shown repeatedly that he remains one of the League's most explosive offensive players. No matter who wins, this should be a battle worth watching.

3. Will experience best enthusiasm?

The Hornets have players with postseason experience, including Batum and Williams, but Jefferson and Walker have played in one NBA playoff series apiece, when Miami swept the Hornets (nee Bobcats) in four games in 2014. Meanwhile, this Miami team has almost more playoff experience than they know what to do with -- Wade alone has played in 152 postseason games. The Hornets play an infectious style of play on both ends, but the Heat aren't likely to be flustered, even in the crucible of the NBA postseason.

Making the pick

The Hornets have had a lot of buzz this season, and the Heat have no clear defensive answer for Walker. But the Heat have the personnel and the experience (and the homecourt advantage) to withstand runs from Charlotte and still control tempo and create offense. This series will be close, but the Heat will remain on Heat in 6.

Data curated by PointAfter

Lang Whitaker has covered the NBA since 1998. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.

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