It’s the Heat’s turn to make the next adjustment.
After Luol Deng’s quickness, perimeter shooting and slashing ability helped Miami forge a 2-0 series lead, the Hornets countered in Saturday’s 96-80 victory with the only option they had available to battle their way back into the series: their size.
A gamble by Heat coach Erik Spoelstra in the third quarter to protect point guard Goran Dragic from slipping further into foul trouble led to a chain defensive reaction that exposed Miami during what proved to be the pivotal stretch of the game. Deng was taken off his defensive assignment against Hornets power forward Frank Kaminsky and was instead matched up with point guard Kemba Walker.
That switch ultimately left 6-foot-4 Heat guard Dwyane Wade matched up with the 7-foot Kaminsky, who scored 13 of his 15 points in the third quarter as the Hornets used an 18-0 run to pull away. Wade’s 154 career blocks in the playoffs are second most in NBA history among guards, behind only Michael Jordan. But he struggled with Kaminsky’s length during the critical moments in Saturday’s game.
“Coach wanted to buy some time and put Luol on Kemba, and that shifted everything around,” Wade said. “I’ve guarded [power forwards] a lot. And [Kaminsky] made some plays. We just have to be more aware of him next time. That’s the one thing I’m not concerned with. This team has always made adjustments from what we’ve done wrong the next time we stepped on the floor.”
The Heat have Sunday’s practice to tinker before Game 4 on Monday. Even after Miami opened the series with franchise record-setting offensive outbursts at home in the first two games, Wade cautioned that things tend to shift drastically when a team hits the road in the playoffs. He said that would especially be the case for a Heat team that includes two rookies in the primary rotation and a third key player, center Hassan Whiteside, making his first playoff appearance.
The same Heat team that scored 238 points and shot 57.8 percent from the field through two games saw that production crater in Game 3, when their 34.2 percent clip was the team’s worst effort of the season and their sixth-worst rate ever in a playoff game.
So what changed?
Everything, Spoelstra essentially suggested.
“It looked like it was going to be a possession game,” Spoelstra said, with the game at one point tied at 53 early in the third quarter. “But then, the next thing, we look up and it’s a 14-point game before we get to the next timeout.
"They were getting after us, being physical, closing out to open shooters, making us put the ball on the floor. This game was being set up to be a game that was kind of ugly.”
The Heat’s execution was pretty in Miami.
But it was putrid in Charlotte.
Spoelstra was far more succinct when asked to assess his defensive adjustment in the third quarter.
“Obviously, it didn’t work out great,” he said. “But whatever. That’s what we had to deal with.”
Now the Heat are dealing with a competitive series against a Hornets team that finally broke through to get their first playoff victory since 2002. But don’t expect Miami to make any drastic changes. To some players in the locker room, Saturday’s outcome was the result of missing the shots in Charlotte that they were able to make in Miami at a prolific rate.
Others said they were legitimately stunned by the Hornets’ shift to a bigger lineup, a move forced by Nic Batum’s Game 2 ankle injury, which is likely to keep him out the rest of the series.
“They went really big and caught us off guard,” Whiteside said. “We were prepared for Al Jefferson to post up, but they posted up on our guards. They got us into foul trouble, and that was tough. But we know what they do now. We know what they’re looking for and we can hone on that. Now we know what their different lineups are going to look like.”
Early on, it appeared as if the Heat would extend their hot streak in the series. Deng, who abused Kaminsky and Charlotte’s front line for 31 points in Game 1, made his first four 3-pointers for 12 quick points. But even then, Miami trailed 29-28 at the end of the first quarter.
The Heat’s small-ball approach dominated in the first two games of the series. On Saturday, Charlotte dictated with size. Kaminsky, Jefferson, Cody Zeller and Spencer Hawes each played from 11 to 34 minutes, and the Hornets owned a 52-28 advantage in points scored in the paint.
Deng, who finished with a team-high 19 points, acknowledged the series might continue to hinge on which team wins the chess match at power forward.
“It’s huge,” Deng said. “The first two games, we did a good job of just containing those guys. But we knew at some point they’d have a good game. They had the same record as we had, and it’s not by accident that they had a good season. It wasn’t going to be one of those [matchups] where you were going to keep them quiet for the whole series. They responded.”
It’s the Heat’s turn now.
“Now, we have to sit back and look and don’t think it’s going to be easy,” Wade said. “It’s good now that everyone sees this is going to be a dogfight. They’re as good a team as we are, if they get to their game. And on Monday, we have to stop them from getting to it as much as they did.”