Bobcats Under Pressure

HEAT Draw 15 Turnovers From Lowest Turnover Team

Bobcats Under Pressure
Photo Credit: Mike Ehrmann

In the wake of his team’s 99-88 loss to the Miami HEAT in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, Charlotte Bobcats coach Steve Clifford’s first words summed up the game, and perhaps the series.

“If we’re going to have 15 turnovers, we are not going to win,” Clifford said.

He might be right. No team gave up fewer turnovers during the regular season than the Bobcats. No team had the ball stolen less, either. The HEAT, on the other hand, thrive in the shadow of chaos. As we discussed in our series preview, the likely path for Erik Spoelstra to follow based on recent history was to take away all the simple passes that Charlotte relies on and make those plays complicated. The more discomfort you introduce into your opponent’s offense, the more likely you are to rob them of possession.

Miami’s usual blitzing of pick-and-rolls aside, the crucial element to their defensive scheme in the context of this series was to be their fronting and denial of Al Jefferson in the post. And while the HEAT were far from perfect in their execution Sunday afternoon, their actions still had the desired results – including six turnovers from Charlotte’s highest-usage player, Kemba Walker.

So, whether it was inviting a player that averaged 1.7 drives per game, according to SportVU data, to drive baseline against the front…

…turning an entry pass into a deflected swing pass…

…jumping the passing lane…

…or forcing a costly last millisecond adjustment on a relatively common pass…

…the fronting influenced many of Charlotte’s turnovers. And when the Bobcats countered with their side pick-and-roll with Jefferson slipping out into space in the left corner, Miami’s blitz created more deflections.

“They just swarm the ball, particularly on pick-and-rolls,” Clifford said. “You got to be fundamental and make quick decisions [to counter].

“When guys were late, which you can’t be against this team, then the guy with the ball is in trouble. They’re very unique to play against. When [the HEAT] are active and into the ball, it’s difficult to move the ball. Again, we were able to run good offense. When we didn’t, then it obviously didn’t look good.”

For years, high turnover totals have been the death knell for many a Miami challenger. Since the start of the 2011-12 season, the HEAT have won more than 75 percent of their games when forcing at least 15 turnovers. When that total climbs over 20, the winning percentage tops 83. If the HEAT’s process keeps producing similar results – while giving the ball away fewer than 10 times themselves – then the odds in this series will most definitely be in their favor.

But the results of such an aggressive scheme won’t and can’t be perfect. If the pass beats the pressure, the help has to be there. And more often than not in Game 1, when Jefferson caught a pinpoint lob, he had to make a quick decision with the ball as the baseline help swarmed.

“He is definitely a handful down there, he really is,” Spoelstra said. “First half, he was in a terrific groove but we had to try to wear him down and make his catches tough. He has some of the best hands I’ve seen in this league, including his touch around the rim. You really have to work him every minute he’s out there.”

On the scales of importance, Jefferson’s health weighs more heavily on this series than any of this. If Jefferson is limited due to his strained plantar fascia, the Bobcats may not feature him as heavily in their offense, thus limiting the power of the front. If Jefferson can’t play at all in any of the upcoming games, then Charlotte’s attack will become something entirely different than what it was for most of the season.

But for Game 1, at least, the HEAT’s plan came together.

A WORD ON JAMES JONES

While the HEAT’s defensive strategies can occasionally be guessed at by parsing through their history on tape, it’s a mistake to try and predict with any degree of certainty just who Spoelstra will use in a specific game. Over the years, with everyone from Mike Miller to Udonis Haslem to Dexter Pittman to Shane Battier coming and going in the playoffs, Spoelstra has never been shy about using any asset available to him when the situation calls for it. So, when James Jones, who played all of 236 minutes during the regular season, comes up with 12 points in 14 minutes of a playoff game, we probably shouldn’t be surprised.

“Coach has said before, if you’re dressed, if you’re in a jersey, then expect to play,” Jones said. “Whether or not you play is something entirely different.”

There is little pretense when the HEAT are recruiting players. Everyone who joins the team knows what the situation is – that, as has been said many times this year, the main thing is the main thing. It’s a testament to the character of the team that no matter how much a player had been playing, once he’s on the court he is ready to perform. Winning first may be an overused adage, but it’s to be commended when it proves true in practice.

As Spoelstra often says, the rotation is the rotation. And the team is fine with that.

Statistical support for this article provided by NBA.com and STATS LLC