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Goran ‘Dragon’ Dragic breathes fire in Heat series clincher

In front of an electric, full crowd, the Miami Heat blew the doors off the game with a 29-11 3rd quarter, giving them a 30-point lead en route to a 106-73 route of the Charlotte Hornets and a 4-3 series victory.

Miami set the tone early, shrugging off a sluggish start by crashing the glass relentlessly, specifically offensively, something they hadn’t made a concerted effort to do so far in the series.

Miami’s pursuit on the boards, as well as their defensive intensity, put the Hornets on their heels; Miami feasted on second-chance opportunities while not allowing Charlotte, who only scored 18 in the quarter, to establish a rhythm.

  • Charlotte had been starting off games by feeding Al Jefferson, but, for the first time in this series, the Heat not only started sending double teams on his post-ups; they were able to get him in early foul trouble. With no Jefferson, a hurt Nicolas Batum, and a struggling Kemba Walker, the Hornets found themselves down 11 after the first and could never really recover.

Miami shot well for the second game in a row, shooting 48.3 percent from the field, and eclipsed the 100-point mark for the first time since Game 2. They took care of the ball, only committing nine turnovers. That efficiency and attention to detail, combined with their edge on the offensive glass (10 offensive rebounds) were reasons why the Heat took five more shots than the Hornets and made 16 more.

Despite this blowout loss, the Hornets shouldn’t hold their heads down after this series. Charlotte was one of the most balanced teams in the NBA, finishing top 10 in offensive and defensive efficiency, and showcased both throughout the series.

Head coach Steve Clifford made excellent adjustments, had to change his rotation with the injury to Batum, and still had the Hornets 48 minutes away from their first series win in over a decade. Walker and Jefferson both gave Miami fits, as well as Jeremy Lin, Cody Zeller, and Courtney Lee, who consistently served as a thorn in Miami’s side.

Regardless, the  series is over. The game itself wasn’t close, but there were things to take away.

 

ENTER THE DRAGON

This has not been an easy series for Goran Dragic. He already had his hands full guarding — well, trying to guard — Kemba Walker, who shot poorly in the series but still got to the paint at will in high pick-and-roll situations. Up until this game, Miami wasn’t sending extra help, so it was up to Dragic, already at a speed and quickness disadvantage, to fight over screens and stay connected to Walker while hoping the big could help contain.

While the effort wasn’t an issue, the results were. Walker wasn’t necessarily efficient, but he lived in the lane and at the line. While that could be frustrating to watch, it was expected — Walker had an All-NBA caliber season in his own right and has shown as early as his college days at UConn that he loves the bright lights.

The Miami offense wasn’t much better, with Dragic struggling to get going. Charlotte mixed trapping on the perimeter with packing the paint, generally making it difficult for him to garner any momentum.

Almost poetically, Dragic was able to break through and have his best game of the series at the most important time.

“Downhill Goran” was on full display, turning the corner hard in pick-and-roll, and nobody quite had an answer for him. He was bullying Walker, finally using his speed to his advantage. Once Charlotte tried to take away the lane, it opened up the lob:

Dragic had been outplayed by Walker in the series, and found himself on the bench during crucial fourth quarter possessions in favor of rookie Josh Richardson. Richardson played over Dragic in the fourth today as well, but that was after Dragic carved up the Hornets.

 

KEMBA WALKER’S DISAPPOINTING GAME

Kemba Walker had a bad game. That sounds overly simplistic, but it was actually stunning to see. You could argue that Walker shot badly throughout the series; in the first six games, Walker shot just 38.7 percent from the field and 34.2 percent from three. But even with that, he still averaged 25 a night, and regardless of his percentages, made his presence felt by constantly attacking on offense and with in-your-jersey on-ball pressure defensively.

Maybe it was Dragic making him work, or the offensive burden becoming too much with Jefferson out of the game so early, or, gasp, just a bad game, but Walker just wasn’t himself.

Objectively, it was likely a mixture of all three. Trying to bang with someone at least four inches bigger and 10-15 pounds heavier than you is already a tough task. Doing it while also carrying an even larger load offensively makes it even tougher. That, combined with the general difficulty of playing a road game with an earlier-than-usual start time is certainly a formula for a bad game.

Walker finished with nine points on 3-of-16 shooting, six assists, and finished as a minus-17. It was a terrible end to a tough series and a great overall campaign for Walker, but he’ll be back. This shouldn’t be much of an indictment of him in the big picture.

 

HASSAN WHITESIDE’S IMPACT

He looked sluggish in the first three minutes, but from that point on, Hassan Whiteside dominated the paint for the Heat. 10 points, 12 rebounds, and five blocks is a pretty modest stat line considering what Whiteside is capable of, but his impact went beyond the numbers.

His five blocks were emphatic, but in a vacuum, blocked shots are a bit overrated as a measure of defense, especially if the defense doesn’t end the possession after the block. That doesn’t mean blocks don’t have value, as Whiteside showcased:

It got to a point where the Hornets were reluctant to even go in the painted area with Whiteside roaming, much less attempt a shot there. His presence alone altered Charlotte’s offensive game plan. That kind of value goes beyond the stat sheet and, if THAT Whiteside shows up moving forward, will make Whiteside max money.

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