1) The Heat seem to struggle out of the gate against sub .500 teams this season and part of that can be attributed to complacency and the grind of a long season. But it also seems that many NBA teams simply give it their best when they face the defending champions. What should the Bobcats do to try to take advantage of the Heat's slow starts?
The Bobcats are not a great shooting team. In particular their three-point shooting is bottom eight in the league. Fortunately they acknowledge this deficiency and take the second fewest threes in the league on a per game basis. But against the Heat so far this season, 26.4 percent of Charlotte's field goal attempts have come from behind the three-point line. That is the third highest for the Cats against opponents this year with the other two coming against the Clippers and the Thunder, all losses. The Bobcats need to be able to get easy shots, another challenge unfortunately.
Even their best perimeter scorer, Kemba Walker, can be streaky. However, Walker has been much better about turning it on quickly this season. He might have a down first half but has shown improved ability to get on a roll quickly.
Against the Heat, the biggest thing the Bobcats have to avoid is getting down big early. The Heat still plays tough D, and the Bobcats will have a tough time clawing back against the world champs. Getting out ahead early will be important, and as you mentioned that's something that could happen. From there, you expect the opponent to make a run, and Charlotte still leaves the door open for teams too often.
Being at home, on the night the Charlotte Hornets merchandise officially goes on sale might add an extra bit of energy to start this game. I anticipate the crowd to be excited and the Bobcats need to use that. Going inside early to Al Jefferson will probably be the plan, since he's been on a bit of a roll lately. When Walker and Jefferson both play well the Bobcats have the best chance to win, and they'll need that tonight.
2) The Heat have won 14 in a row against the Bobcats, 13 of them during the Heat's "Big 3" era. But is this year's Bobcats squad much improved from prior seasons and are they playing better since their first two meetings against Miami this season?
This year's Bobcats team is absolutely much improved from last year, and certainly two years ago. A lot of that is the maturation of Kemba Walker and the addition of Al Jefferson. But the hiring of head coach Steve Clifford has been perhaps the biggest culture change for this organization. He has brought a wealth of basketball knowledge and a clear direction for this team. He has great experience on his bench and has instilled in Charlotte the type of consistent and focused effort needed, especially for young teams.
The Bobcats' defensive play finally started to slip this month toward the end of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist's absence, but he has returned now. Clifford has made taking away the easy transition basket a point of emphasis, and certainly that's huge against the Heat when you are concerned with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade running out for highlight dunks.
This is an important stretch for Charlotte. If they can finish out the first half of the regular season strong it will let the team get refreshed for the second half playoff push. The Bobcats played well in the second game against the Heat, and not so well the first time. And after a brutal start to the year Charlotte has played better over the last four games. Back-to-backs are as challenging to Charlotte as anyone and I think that will be the biggest point of concern tonight...and also playing the Heat.
3) Miami basically stole the last game from the Bobcats, needing multiple 3-pointers from Bosh in crunch time to win by a single point. The Bobcats outplayed them for long stretches of the game so what lessons can they take away from that game and apply it to tonight's rematch?
The biggest to take away is the belief that the Bobcats can play with the Heat. They also need to be able to take advantage inside and get Jefferson on track early. If they can continue to get big numbers from him down low, it will open up things for everyone else. He didn't play in the first game, and you can see a definite difference for the Bobcats when he does not play, especially against very good teams like the Heat. Kemba Walker has been able to score in both games against Miami. And Charlotte's chances for victory increase dramatically when he plays well. Walker needs to keep that mindset and try to score as well as get other guys (Jefferson) quality looks.
4) Al Jefferson had 30 points and 16 rebounds last night in the victory over the Magic. Is that who the Bobcats should look to have an advantage over the Heat or is there another player to keep an eye on?
Yes, Jefferson and Walker are the key guys. Of course when you say that it always comes back to another player or a role guy who has a big night. Certainly Gerald Henderson has the ability to get hot and shoot the ball well for periods of time. But he's not a consistent enough jump shooter for teams to spend too much game planning trying to take away his jumper. So Jefferson and Walker are the keys offensively for Charlotte. They have both been hot lately, with Walker shooting 45 percent from the field over the last 10 games and Jefferson eclipsing 50 percent from the floor. Jefferson has just about averaged 20 and 10 over that time period, and his touch around the basket in two of the last three has resulted in shooting better than 70 percent. It comes down to those two most nights for this team.
5) How has Michael Kidd-Gilchrist looked since his return to injury? He's only played a few games since the Bobcats last played against the Heat on December 1st. Will he be guarding LeBron down the stretch?
Offensively he hasn't missed a beat, which is to say he still isn't much of a threat on that end of the floor. But he knows that and doesn't take a lot of bad shots choosing to get his points on slashes, transition opportunities, and put backs. The free throw line should be another place for him to find points but it's not. However MKG is not here to score (thankfully) but rather to be that lockdown defender and take on the LeBrons, Paul Georges, and Carmelo Anthonys of the league. So I would certainly hope he is matched up on LeBron a good bit tonight. He did a fantastic job against Carmelo Anthony earlier this week.
MKG is already an elite defender, and he plays smart. He can cut down on the fouls like all young players, but that will come with time and experience. He can also lead a herky-jerky break if he's not stopped after grabbing a rebound. His jump shot will make you cringe, but again he doesn't uncoil it unless there is just no other choice. He doesn't appear to have any lingering effects from his injury and the Bobcats will need him to give James some trouble tonight.
The down-the-stretch portion of the question is interesting though, as MKG will often be on the bench at the end of close games when shooting and foul shooting are a concern. It tends to be situational, and you could certainly see some offense/defense substitutions. Otherwise Anthony Tolliver will be charged with staying in front of LeBron and that's no good.
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