MIAMI -- Steve Clifford’s news conferences this postseason have often turned into impromptu lessons on the craft of NBA coaching. Clifford loves the grind of studying game film and digging into the data. The way he perks up when talking about it, it seems reasonable to say he lives for it too. And he isn’t shy about sharing some of the information he unearths when fielding questions in a scrum of reporters.
On Tuesday, two days after his Charlotte Hornets allowed 123 points in a Game 1 loss to the Miami Heat, he dropped nuggets about both teams’ points per possession and where they rank. A few days earlier, he said that Charlotte center Cody Zeller set the third-most screens in the NBA. He knows where players from both sides like to shoot and the spots to push them toward to take advantage of their weaknesses.
He’ll also tell you, kindly and with a smile, when he thinks you're off base. Like in the hours leading up to Game 2, when the third-year head coach had heard about possible offensive adjustments over the teams' three-day break one too many times.
“If you really had no life and you sat there for two days watching game film over and over,” Clifford said, “it makes no sense to me whatsoever.”
He wasn’t wrong, and it showed in the follow-up performance in Game 2: Despite shooting 1-for-16 from 3-point range and getting only nine assists on 38 makes, the Hornets put up 103 points against the NBA’s No. 7 defense.
It was the Hornets’ defense, Clifford said, that was the real concern in Game 1. And Charlotte again struggled on that end of the floor.
The Heat shot 57.9 percent overall, and despite finishing 24th in the regular season in 3-point percentage, made 9 of 16 attempts in a 115-103 victory at AmericanAirlines Arena. Miami also hit 16 of its 19 shots in the second quarter, including two 3s apiece from Luol Deng (34.4 percent from 3 this season) and Goran Dragic (31.2), and another from Justise Winslow (27.6).
Clifford, though, seemed content with the overall approach, saying the Heat “made a lot of shots that you could live with.”
“You start every game, defensively, with a game plan of what can you live with,” he said. “Dragic hit three 3s tonight -- all against the under, all step-back 3s. And then we started going over the top. When you go over the top, he’s in the paint more. If you look at him as a 3-point shooter from above the break, you go into most games saying, ‘If he’s going to shoot step-back jumpers off the dribble from above the break, you can live with that.’ When he’s got two, you’re going to have to change.
“You can’t take away everything. My point would be this: That’s not their strength. Is Dragic a guy that’s capable of making 3s? Yes, he is. Is that what you want him doing, versus driving to the basket? Yes, it is. On the nights when he makes 3-for-3, they’re probably going to win. That’s the way basketball works.”
But with an 0-2 hole hanging over the Hornets as they head back to Charlotte, can they wait for the Heat to regress to the mean?
Clifford respectfully yet vehemently disagreed.
“Well, you have to look at how they’re scoring,” he said. “Like Game 1. The majority of the problems in Game 1 were basic principles versus coverages. Like tonight was the same thing. It’s one-on-one penetration and not allowing the ball [into the] middle. It’s not, like, for instance, they’re not running sets where we’re having trouble with coverages on. It’s one-on-one stuff.
“It’s as simple as this: If Dwyane Wade’s got room, he’s getting in the paint against anybody. So the nights when those other guys make those shots," you’ve got to cover both. "You know what I mean?”
That’s when Clifford’s comments strayed toward metacommentary on, well, basketball commentary.
“Not to be disrespectful, but you guys watch these games and you just come up like something’s got to change,” he said. “Where sometimes you have to do the basic things better. Which is what basketball is. It kills me. Jeff Van Gundy always used to say, ‘Writers always love to say, "They made an adjustment."’ Usually the adjustment is some guy that went 1-for-8 [now went] 6-for-8.
“And I’m not joking. But if you’re not sitting here watching the film, no disrespect, you have no idea what should happen. I heard Pat Riley say this 16 years ago: ‘Until I watch the film, I really don’t know.’ I’ll watch it; I just made my notes in there about what I think will happen. I tell Scott [Fowler of the Charlotte Observer] this all the time. When I watch the film on the plane, half of it will be wrong. Because all I do is watch film. So this knee-jerk thing about 'something’s got to change'? Everybody’s been asking me for two days, ‘What about starting Al [Jefferson] so your offense is better?’ Our offense was 1.07 points per possession. You guys are looking at 91 points. You’re wrong. Sorry.”
Clifford said earlier that, after 82 games, he wasn’t going to change something just to seem like he’s “playing Joe Coach.” And he didn’t waver on that stance, even after another loss dropped his personal playoff record as a head coach to 0-6 and the franchise to its 12th straight postseason defeat.
“I know my team,” he said. “I watch my team closer than anybody. I’m going to look and figure out what the problems are. If we need to make an adjustment, we’ll make it. But this isn’t they’re running stuff that we’re having trouble guarding. We’ve got to keep the ball out of the middle. We’ve got to be cleaner with our basic coverages. We’ve got to make sure we’re not turning the ball over and staying organized on offense.
“So it’s not all these great ideas or things that have to change or this plan is terribly wrong. Sometimes the other team just makes shots, OK? So that’s really what’s going on.”