The amount of complaining we’ve been hearing from Miami Heat players and especially Hassan Whiteside over the last few days means one thing: The Charlotte Hornets and mostly Jeremy Lin have gotten in his, and other players’ head. As game 6 approaches, it shows just how much this series has changed.
Suddenly, you see Heat beat writers and Miami media outlets talking and writing about how they’re missing Chris Bosh and his pick-and-roll defense, and how playing Whiteside is something of a double edged sword once the Hornets realized how to attack him. Complaints about not getting calls are simply hot air being vented due to frustration. The Heat tactically and physically dominated for two games, but the Hornets have turned it around remarkably.
The Hornets aren’t blowing out the Heat – they’ve won game 3 by 16 points, but 4 & 5 by combined six points. However, they’re no longer getting outcoached or pushed around. Forced to by hall of famers or simply through his own intuition, Steve Clifford made changes that have worked differently in each game. Frank Kaminsky was a revelation for one game, but hasn’t done much since. Al Jefferson has his moments, but the most effective big game has been Cody Zeller, now coming off the bench.
The one constant has been Lin, averaging 14 points and 3.4 assists in this series, but doing so much more than the numbers show. He has the best +/- on the team through the five games, has bailed them out a couple of times after horrendous starts, is the only playmaker capable of giving the Hornets a fast-paced look which has put them on clinching runs a couple of times, and has simply challenged and proven the whole Clifford regular season concept wrong.
Kemba Walker has been untouchable regardless of how good or bad he’s been, until the last game, when he got benched twice in times we’re not used to see Clifford pulling out. Turns out shooting 36.4% from the field while taking over 21 shots a game is a bit too much, even for Walker, who contributes very little to the team beyond his scoring. Yes, he had that block on Goran Dragic as the Heat tried to tie the game after the Courtney Lee three pointer, but there has to be more. Or maybe less, either if it comes from Walker himself or Clifford.
The key thing is understanding what works and what doesn’t. Walker taking 20 and more shots a game has had nothing to do with the Hornets being in the lead, 3-2, one game away from winning the series. It has to do with a second unit led by Lin turning this series around. It has to do with Marvin Williams and Courtney Lee doing a great job on defense, while Williams has been awful offensively and Lee, two games in a row, coming up with big plays that have decided games. It should come from Nicolas Batum remaining part of the second unit. It comes from a much improved defense, and with (mostly) the right idea offensively, disabling the way the Heat played so comfortably in during their two wins.
The last time the Hornets, as a Charlotte franchise, made it past the first round of the playoffs was in 2002, when they beat the Orlando Magic 3-1 in the first round before losing to the New Jersey Nets (now Brooklyn) 4-1 in the conference semifinals. That was the fourth time in nine seasons they made it that far. They’ve never made it to the conference finals, but that’s thinking a bit too far ahead. Beating Miami in game 6 is anything but easy, and it’s not as if their three wins so far have been blowouts. One step at a time, and most importantly: Let Jeremy Lin guide them to their promised land, or something like that.