The night LeBron James scored a career-high 61 points, Miami-based ESPN personality Dan LeBatard tweeted, "Poor Al Jefferson and his 38 and 19 on 18 of 24 shooting."
Although Jefferson had a spectacular game by anyone's standards -- including those of James -- all the talk after the game surrounded James' 61-point performance and the Heat's 124-107 victory. And now the two-time Finals MVP will face Jefferson and the rest of the Charlotte Bobcats in the Heat's first-round matchup in their quest for a third straight championship.
After years of futility, a free agency signing of Jefferson has paid huge dividends for the soon-to-be Hornets. Jefferson averaged 22 points on 51 percent shooting from the field and 10 rebounds per game this season. He's won the Eastern Conference Player of the Month Award for the last two months. Jefferson has served as the nexus for Charlotte's still less-than-stellar offense, although that is to be expected from his somewhat anemic supporting cast.
Jefferson consistently commands double-teams, and Jefferson remains one of the more skilled big men in the NBA. Just as James lit up Charlotte this year, Jefferson has done the same to the Heat in their regular season meetings. But as we know with the Miami Heat, the team plays at a noticeably higher intensity level in the playoffs (just ask where Steve Novak went in the Heat's 2012 first-round matchup against the New York Knicks).
Now, Miami's help-and-recover defense cannot neutralize a talented big man like a standstill 3-point shooter. But the Heat defenders -- Chris Bosh, Udonis Haslem, Chris Andersen, maybe even Greg Oden -- will try to front Jefferson to prevent entry-passes into the post. Miami's perimeter players will also cheat off of any non-threat from 3-point shooting to help defend Jefferson. The 6-foot-10 center will probably still manage to score 20 points per game, but Miami will just have to make it difficult for him.
The Heat will also try to involve Jefferson in a lot of high pick-and-rolls and attempt to get him into foul trouble. Like Roy Hibbert, Jefferson prefers to hang back in pick-and-roll situations rather than trap the ball-handler. James and possibly Wade will have to avoid the temptation to settle for the jumper and instead attack the plodding Jefferson. The Bobcats rode a strong defense to the NBA playoffs, and the Heat will simply have to manufacture enough points to avoid an extended series. Once James can get a step on Jefferson, Miami's offense can really start to roll as James will have the choice of attacking the basket or finding an open shooter as the defense collapses on him.
And by the way, it wasn't just the 61-point game. James owned the Bobcats all year along; in the other three Heat/Bobcats meetings, James averaged 30 points per game on 62 percent shooting from the field. Although Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is a good defender, he cannot defend James in the post. Jeff Taylor's season-ending injury removes another perimeter defender from the Bobcats' roster. Aside from Kidd-Gilchrist, the Bobcats have no one who can match up with James. Steve Clifford, Charlotte's first-year head coach, will simply have to leave Kidd-Gilchrist on James and Gerald Henderson on a revitalized Wade and hope for the best.
Both teams will look to exploit their advantages with their respective best players. At the end of the day, this series will simply be about whether the Heat players reach the level they are capable of playing. This series should not go beyond five games simply because even though the Bobcats have an advantage at center, the Heat have the Big Three.