After three straight NBA Finals appearances and two consecutive championships, the Heat are not all that different than what they were three years ago when the main components assembled with LeBron James and Chris Bosh completing the "Big Three."
The roles players have changed around the core but they still get the bread and butter from their trio of stars. And three years later, they're still one of the toughest teams on offense and defense.
The Bobcats won't have a lot of leeway to work with in regards to exploiting Miami's weaknesses, but they're there.
One of Miami's biggest defensive mainstays, and sometimes an issue, has been their aggression in blitzing the pick and roll, often coming with quick double-teams on the guard.
This is beneficial when dealing with guards that struggle to make passes against multiple defenders as it helps their turnovers, but against versatile and agile big men who can slip the screen, Miami's defense becomes susceptible to open jump shots or looks at the rim. If a team passes well, they can take advantage of the Heat's rotations from the weak side, which can leave space in the corner for threes. Chris Douglas-Roberts, Anthony Tolliver and guards playing off the ball can take advantage of these over rotations.
This has been effective in limiting Kemba Walker, however. Per NBA.com, Walker has only had 8 drives against Mario Chalmers or Norris Cole. The other side of the pick and roll blitz defense is that it forces the point guard to pick up their dribble a lot. This takes away Kemba Walker's best offensive skill as a playmaker off the dribble. Although it gives Charlotte the chance to spread the scoring with their big men, it forces Charlotte to rely on their role players to make up for Walker's offense.
The Bobcats will run pick and rolls with Josh McRoberts, Al Jefferson and Cody Zeller mostly. Though Jefferson isn't as mobile as the other two, he's a talented enough passer and a decent enough jump shooter to put Miami in a tough spot if they let him roll on the screen. McRoberts does both fairly well and Zeller is not a great shooter from the midrange, but he's mobile and agile in space, which can give him better looks.
Miami's best two rim protectors, Chris Andersen and Greg Oden, will play off the bench. Andersen's better at covering ground with good speed, long arms and great jumping ability, while Oden is not so quick but has terrific size and better strength.
Al Jefferson will of course get most of his looks on the left block. Clifford expects Udonis Haslem to be the primary defender on Jefferson. Haslem's a better bet to be more physical on entry pass attempts and in trying to deny Jefferson better positioning than what Bosh may give him, but Haslem is slower and less of shotblocking threat.
In bringing double-teams on Jefferson's post-ups, which will undoubtedly happen at some point, Miami will probably bring the second defender after Jefferson puts the ball on the floor, trying to force him into picking up his dribble in a trap. But Jefferson's become a better passer, one who can spot a teammate on a cut. Gerald Henderson is often that player, breaking into the interior defense's gap. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist will often be on the weak side of the floor but as Miami overloads the strong side in trying to force a turnover, good passing can catch Miami out of place.
Outside of Jefferson's individual advantage on offense, the Bobcats will have to maximize the Heat's off-ball defense on the weak side since they're so good and aggressive defending ballhandlers -- but this will be even more difficult in the playoffs when they tighten up their rotations.
The Heat also aren't a great defensive rebounding team (24th in the NBA) but the Bobcats aren't a great offensive rebounding team (26th in the NBA). Giving up transition defense to try to get more offensive rebounding isn't worth it, but the Bobcats will probably get more second-chance scoring opportunities, for what it's worth.
Though bringing Udonis Haslem into the starting lineup might be a better defensive matchup for the Heat, it might make things a bit easier on the Bobcats' defensive end. When Jefferson is matched up on Chris Bosh, it forces the slow-footed center to come out to the perimeter, at least as a half-measure to the free-throw line, opening up the paint for Miami.
Instead, if Miami pits Bosh against McRoberts, another mobile power forward, the Bobcats have a better matchup that helps keep Jefferson defending the paint without straying too much from it. Haslem likes the midrange shot, too, but he's much worse at shooting it than Bosh.
Miami also likes to work out of the pick and roll, which is particularly daunting from a defensive standpoint when you have two exceptionally good scorers and ballhandlers in Dwyane Wade and LeBron James. They'll try to draw Jefferson out of his home in the paint toward the free-throw line, which puts Charlotte defense in a predicament because he's not quick enough to get back toward the hoop if James or Wade get a step on him.
Wade and James are also a threat in isolation facing the basket or with their back to it. LeBron is especially a threat here with his court vision and strength, as notoriously seen last year, but Wade is too. As Miami overloads the weak side to create the isolation, they Bobcats can bring a double-team, but the Heat can counter by bringing a player to the top of the key, giving them the option to rotate the ball back to the strong side, which then could have a corner three opportunity as the Bobcats are forced to rotate.
Throughout the season, the Bobcats have tended to held to their defensive tenets of man to man defense without trying to double much. They're not going to lose much sleep if they force LeBron James into a purely scoring role while limiting his playmaking abilities as a passer, but he can make them pay for that, as we've already seen this season. With this in mind, the Bobcats have to do a better job playing tight defense on Wade, Bosh and their collection of shooters in Ray Allen and pals, all while maintaining focus on trying to stop Miami's dribble-drive penetration.
The Bobcats will have their hands full trying to defend a Miami offense that does well to space the floor and their offense will have to capitalize on Miami's short list of weaknesses to have the best shot at an upset opportunity.