Spencer Hawes' size gave the Charlotte Hornets a big man in the paint to occupy Hassan Whiteside. The Hornets won three straight against the Miami Heat when Hawes logged important minutes. They were in a position to close out the series in Charlotte, before he went down with a sprained medial collateral ligament (MCL) in his right knee.
His series-ending injury allowed the Heat to go smaller and match experienced pick-and-roll defender Udonis Haslem against Al Jefferson's crafty veteran moves, so lockdown defenders Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson could focus on stopping Jeremy Lin and company.
The Hornets have two primary go-to offense options on offense: Kemba Walker at guard and Jefferson in the post. They will get their points, but Charlotte has little else to offer when the secondary players are held in check, just like the Spurs thrashed the Thunder. Hawes' role in Charlotte's wins was underrated as he kept Whiteside busy and fought for the ball in the painted area. Without Hawes the Heat had a decisive rebounding advantage in Game 6.
That issue was noted by Hornets head coach Steve Clifford, when he said during a Saturday conference call, "The rebounding game, our physicality, were really the biggest issues (Friday) night."
The Hornets will adjust, as Heat will not face the same game plan in the loser-go-home Game 7. The Sioux Falls Skyforce's dominating 91-63 victory in the NBA D-League Finals showed how a stifling defense can lead to championships, and Spoelstra's close ties to Dan Craig may lead them to join forces again for a blueprint in the Heat's quest for playoff wins.
The Hornets have limited offensive weapons against the Heat, especially against Miami's speedy defenders. Without Hawes their firepower is further compromised, as Friday's rebounding edge showed. Haslem and Amar'e Stoudemire (if he sees action) can handle the older and slower Jefferson's post moves in that aspect of the game.
Due to Richardson's injury, coach Erik Spoelstra might dig deeper into the bench and use Tyler Johnson and Briante Weber as the primary dribble-penetration defenders. Weber was selected as a 3-time conference DPOY during his tenure in VCU. At 6'2", with a vertical leap of 45", he matches up well with Walker's speed to stop him from getting into the painted area. As a note, Briante writes computer code, like fellow Heat teammate Chris Bosh.
Whiteside can handle Cody Zeller and company when Jefferson is out, so having the best match-ups is one key to winning. The huge +/- advantage with Richardson and Winslow on the floor showed the key in the game 6 victory was containing Lin, Marvin Williams, etc. The Heat starting five was +5, only because Whiteside was +10 in the +/- column of the box score. The bench was +30, despite the rotation players seeing much fewer minutes on the court.
If the Heat can limit turnovers back home for Game 7, a top-notch defensive effort on players not named Walker or Jefferson could bring a home-court win. Taking advantage of Hawes and Nicolas Batum's injuries, and dealing with Richardson's injured shoulder could spell the difference in this one-game series.
As Wade said, for veteran players such as him, Haslem, Joe Johnson, Stoudemire, not many tomorrows remain in their basketball careers. Look for them to perform as if this may be their final chance at a ring.
Admiral Rickover once asked a job applicant why he did not try his best in life. Heat players should ask themselves the same question about Sunday's game in Miami. The Heat are favored by 6.5 points to win the game and series on a nationally televised stage. A computer-generated model predicts a 107-89 result in favor of the Heat via the the Odds Shark handicapping pick engine.