CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Even after his defense allowed 123 points in Game 1 and 115 more in Game 2, dragging a ninth-place ranking in the regular season down to dead last in the postseason, Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford stressed his confidence in their approach.
Three-point shooting is not the strength of the Miami Heat, a fact Clifford and Heat coach Erik Spoelstra will readily admit. Yet Miami made 9 of 16 from behind the arc on Wednesday, with unlikely suspects such as Justise Winslow and Goran Dragic contributing to the total.
The law of averages, Clifford seemed to suggest, will eventually even out.
“There’s certain things you’re going to live with,” he reiterated on Friday.
But with starting small forward Nicolas Batum officially out for at least Game 3 after suffering a left foot strain, Clifford now will be forced to make one of the major adjustments he previously dismissed.
“[Batum] does a lot of things for us,” he said. ”NBA players are used to it because you have to play so many games with a guy out. You play to the strengths of the guys that you have.”
There are a few options, but the decision, according to Clifford, comes down to what to do at the 3. He can either go smaller, by bumping Courtney Lee over to Batum’s spot and inserting Jeremy Lin, Troy Daniels or Jeremy Lamb into the first unit. Or he can go big, with stretch-4 Marvin Williams going to 3, where he played most of his career, and Frank Kaminsky most likely joining the starters.
Clifford said he worked on both looks at practice Friday but hadn’t yet decided which way they’ll go.
“I’m going to look at both, and watch more film the rest of the day,” he said. “I told them today, ‘Everybody’s got to be ready.’ That’s what happens in a playoff series.”
The Hornets have made it this far going the smaller route. Williams’ emergence as a 40 percent 3-pointer at power forward this season has allowed the offense to deploy four shooters with Cody Zeller setting screens to get them looks. As a result, Charlotte cracked the top 10 in offensive efficiency for the first time in Clifford’s three seasons as head coach.
But the Hornets, Clifford said, had issues matching up with Miami even with Batum, one of their most versatile defenders.
“Size, in this league, is everything,” Clifford said. “And it’s not size at center all the time. Obviously you have size at center. But [Dwyane] Wade is big. [Joe] Johnson is big and tall. And they’re seeing over us. So they’re able to make passes into the interior across court, which puts a lot more pressure on your defense.”
Clifford said he can usually tell how his defense is performing by the number of tipped passes they register.
“When we’re right, during the season, we’ll have 41, 42, 43 deflections in a game,” he said. “The other night we had 27. We’ve got to be able to get those up.”
Clifford called Williams the “anchor” of Charlotte’s defense, and the 11-year veteran echoed the coach’s claim. Williams, who finished fourth in real plus-minus among power forwards in the regular season, has struggled offensively this series, shooting 1-for-17 in two games. But his ability to guard the Heat’s bigger wing options, such as Johnson and Luol Deng, has and will likely continue to make a big difference.
“They’re scoring in pick-and-rolls so many times with the ball handler or off the first pass,” Clifford said. “It’s enter the ball more, better ball pressure, hand activity. It’s the habits that, frankly, I think we’ve been really terrific at all year.”
Charlotte, Clifford hopes, will get back to what led to their most wins (48) since returning to the NBA 12 years ago.
But with Batum now out, something has to change -- whether he likes it or not.
“You know what Nic has meant to us all year long, on both ends of the floor,” Williams said. “So it will be a little difficult obviously without him. But when he’s gone down, guys have stepped in. Jeremy Lin has played great, Jeremy Lamb has played great. Whoever’s number is called will be ready. It’s going to take a collective effort.”