The Morning After: Heat Survive Dose of Their Own Medicine
CHARLOTTE — On Tuesday night, Justise Winslow and Dwyane Wade were in Durham to check out the Duke-Wake Forest matchup. On Wednesday night, they played in a college game of their own.
The Miami Heat were able to get it done, defeating the Charlotte Hornets, 91-84. It was their third straight win, marking just the second time they’ve strung together three or more wins all season. More importantly (disregard, #TankTwitter), the victory gave the Heat sole possession of the eighth seed and the Southeast Division lead.
With less than 20 games to go, the fight-for-eighth game between the Heat and Hornets essentially counted double in the standings. Most expected a street fight, but we may have gotten something uglier: a zone fest.
“It was kind of a throwback, maybe even a collegiate-type feel,” coach Erik Spoelstra told reporters after the game.
“There was a lot of zone on both ends being played. For a while there, it didn’t seem like either team could develop a rhythm. When you get those games, you have to roll up your sleeves and find a way to make plays and get things done.”
Per Synergy Sports, there were 72 combined zone possessions in the game (42 Heat, 30 Hornets). 53 points were scored against zone. To put that lack of efficiency (73.6 points per 100 possessions) into context, last night’s game was like watching Draymond Green take spot up jumpers (78.4 points per 100 spot up possessions), but if he actually wore a backpack.
The Heat began the game trapping Kemba Walker in pick-and-roll, a stark change from the “Drop” scheme they employed in the first two meetings. It was reminiscent of the Big 3 Era with the way they blitzed at the point of attack and relied on crisp rotations on the back end. Once they started mixing in their 2-3 zone, the Hornets practically died on offense.
The Heat led by as many as 13 in the first quarter. The Hornets chipped it to 11 with a late Tony Parker jumper, but the game was clearly in the Heat’s control.
Then the second quarter happened.
The Hornets entered the game with a limited zone track record. Their 64 zone possessions on the year paled in comparison to the Heat’s total (520). They weren’t as effective (1.172 points per possession allowed vs 0.952) and had only forced six turnovers.
So of course, the Hornets went to zone and forced seven turnovers in that alignment.
On the night, the Heat scored just 20 points in 30 possessions (0.667 PPP) against the Hornets’ zone defense. It was odd to see a team struggle so much against something they run so often. Spoelstra was amused by it.
“We run our zone so obviously we work on it all the time,” Spoelstra said with a smile. “Press teams don’t want to be pressed; zone teams don’t want to be zoned.”
The Heat were finally able to settle in some in the second half. They didn’t shoot particularly well in the third quarter (8-of-24), but it felt more like randomness instead of panic. Josh Richardson, for example, was able to consistently penetrate the middle for free-throw line jumpers. Those are shots in his wheelhouse, even though they weren’t really falling.
The tide finally turned in the fourth quarter. Hassan Whiteside set the tone, much like he did in his first quarter stint. He was a wall in the paint on the defensive end, swatting a pair of shots and altering a multitude of others.
Miami’s ability to force misses allowed them to flow into their early offense. They weren’t quite transition opportunities, but they forced the issue in a way that didn’t allow the Hornets to set up their zone in an effective manner.
While the Heat were able to find a groove, the Hornets struggled against the Heat’s ever-changing defense. The Heat sprinkled in zone, “Drop” coverage, and traps to keep the Hornets off balance. It worked, with the Hornets shooting 9-of-23 in the fourth quarter, and 15-of-46 for the second half overall.
Ultimately, those struggles started with Walker, and how the Heat made a point to take the game out of his hands.
“Anybody but Kemba,” Whiteside told Heat Beat after the game.
“We tried to make it as tough as possible on him and make the other guys make plays and beat us. I was blitzing out there on Kemba, and I feel like we did a good job.”
Walker finished the game with 20 points, but did so on 5-of-17 shooting from the floor. He turned the ball over four times, three of those coming against traps.
With Walker effectively erased from the game, the Hornets just didn’t have the firepower to compete. Frank Kaminsky (20) and Cody Zeller (10) were the only other players to score in double digits for the Hornets.
• Kelly Olynyk continued his recent hot streak with a 22-point, 11-rebound performance in 44 minutes. 44! Maybe we aren’t on #TaxWatch after all. Seriously, Olnyk’s barrage of corner threes and general IQ helped the Heat eventually break the Hornets’ zone.
• Justise Winslow only played 25 minutes and was noticeably absent for a chunk of the fourth quarter. That felt like Spoelstra riding a hot lineup, which, well, we know how that goes. Still, his 9-6-7 line was solid, and he continued to show comfort working the in-between area in pick-and-roll. The sooner he becomes consistent with those floaters and pull-ups, the more dangerous he’ll become.
• Derrick Jones Jr. was terrible, which hurts to type consider how well he’s played for most of the year. He looked entirely unprepared to face a zone defense, turning the ball over four times in his four minutes. His inability to make the right decision or a timely one made him a relative nonfactor. There’s no need to give up on him as a prospect or anything, but that performance might matter once — or if — the Heat make the playoffs.