With the Bobcats' first playoff game only a day away, there's only so much time for our final series preview articles. This one is a collaborative effort between David Ramil of Hot Hot Hoops and I, as we answer each other's questions to try to get further perspectives on the series.
ROF: How do you think a playoff series between the Bobcats and Heat would go? Does anything worry you about that matchup? What would you be most confident about?
David: I think it's going to be a good series with Charlotte doing their best to keep pace with a Miami team that is probably much more focused at this point of the year. The Cats are probably just a major piece away from being at the top of the Eastern Conference, assuming he would complement Big Al and Kemba Walker. My biggest concern - concerns, actually - are the health of Dwyane Wade and the team's ability to correct season-long mistakes. Wade seems to be healthy and I don't think there'll be any problems with him being out-of-synch with the team, but after missing a big chunk of the season, we don't know what to expect. There will be some rust but I think he'll be fine. As for confidence, I mean, this is the Heat. Three straight trips to the Finals and two championships aren't a fluke. They know what it takes to advance in the playoffs and they've got the personnel to do it.
ROF: Is there any individual player or matchup you think would be particularly important?
Maybe it's easier for Bobcats fans to remember this but, lost in the shadows of LeBron's 61-point outing is the fact that Jefferson was a monster. He is such a solid player; great low-post ability (best in the league, by far) and a surprisingly smooth jumpshot. But that game was played without Miami's not-so-secret weapon...Udonis Haslem. UD, long the heart and soul of the Heat, has found new life over the last month or so. He was so effective at disrupting Roy Hibbert in two matchups, I'm very curious to see how he can - or if he can - disrupt Jefferson. Then again, it might be in Miami's best interest to let Big Al get his points and see if the supporting cast (which isn't as proven) can be consistent.
ROF: And finally, what do you think the result would be?
I've seen some people predict a sweep and I don't think that's the case. I see Miami taking it in 5. They can get a little complacent and there will be some rough spots to smooth over as they welcome Wade back into the rotation. Plus, I think the Charlotte fanbase will be extremely supportive of the team. Miami can take two games at home, before dropping Game 3 in Charlotte. Then, with renewed focus, they'll close out the series. But it's the playoffs and one never knows - that's what makes this so much fun to be a part of.
Great answers there, and it's a bit of a confidence boost to know that a smart Heat fan agrees with most of us about how good the Bobcats can be, and he doesn't underrate Al Jefferson at all. He had a few questions for me too, and I tried my best to respond with good answers.
HHH: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has been on the receiving end of two 60+ point outings yet is still considered a good defender. What's your take on his skillset and what can he do to harass LeBron James in the series?
Tucker: Those 60-point games, in my mind, are the exception to the rule that Kidd-Gilchrist is a very good defensive player. The Bobcats do have a good defensive system, but it's built around shutting down the pass to the interior, sometimes at the expense of giving up long-range shots; so when they play against dominant offensive perimeter players, and those players are hot, they can have big games. So while I don't expect another 60-point effort, I think we could see LeBron score thirty points in multiple games this series, even if Kidd-Gilchrist plays well on him individually. He's more than capable of getting in the faces of any ball-handler, even LeBron, and keeping his man from getting open looks, in addition to preventing players from driving into the lane. The problem is, LeBron has so many skills that I think he'll carve up the Bobcats defense no matter what Kidd-Gilchrist does. The key on the Bobcats' end will be making sure he doesn't get anything easy.
HHH: "Big Al" Jefferson has been great all year for Charlotte. How do fans feel about him and what is generally seen as an "old school" type of game? He'll probably get his point easily so what role player will need to bring it in order to challenge Miami?
Al Jefferson is as good of a player as the Bobcats have ever had; suffice to say, we Charlotte fans have taken to him pretty quickly. There aren't many players in the league that can match him in both interior scoring and rebounding, and the fans here know that as well as anyone. And, like you mentioned, I have no doubt that he'll be able to get his points against Miami-- lost in the shuffle in LeBron's 61-point game in early March was Al Jefferson scoring 38 points on 18-24 shooting and pulling down 19 rebounds. But while he'll be fine, it's fair to question any other player on the Bobcats about whether they'll be able to have their usual productivity. In order for the Bobcats to stay with the Heat, they'll have to hit their exterior shots and stretch the floor, so for that reason, I think Kemba Walker (while not exactly a role player, per se) is going to have to be bigger in this series. He's struggled with his shooting this season, but is still more than capable of having big games, especially because of his improved passing skills. Off the bench, Gary Neal is a volume shooter who will get minutes in late/close situations, and he'll be a player to watch too.
HHH: In context of some pretty lean years, do you view this as a successful season? How do fans see the return of the Hornets brand to Charlotte basketball?
Going into the season, most of us- which certainly includes me- thought this would be a rebuilding season, but still one on the rise. With no first round pick of their own this season, but conditional picks from both Portland and Detroit, the Bobcats wouldn't necessarily be looking to build through the draft this season, so tanking was never much of an option. The over-.500 record and quality team-wide play was an unexpected treat, and it doesn't set the team back to lose their first-round pick to Chicago by failing to make the lottery, so there's a lot of excitement for the future after seeing what this team was capable of, and by how much they're still able to improve. The return of the Hornets name and brand is only going to be the icing on the cake for a lot of Charlotte fans who weren't able to connect with the Bobcats during their many years of mediocrity and/or outright inadequacy. For me personally, this isn't much of an issue, as I was too young to be a devoted fan of the original Hornets while they were in Charlotte, but for a lot of local fans (or potential fans who are now more interested in the franchise than ever before), this is a big selling point in addition to the bright future of the team, and I wouldn't be surprised at all to see a big uptick in attendance or merchandise sales next season.
HHH: What's your take on the series and the eventual result?
While the Heat won all four games of the regular-season series, the Bobcats lost one of those games by one point, and another went into overtime. The most recent game was won by a 17-point margin, but that required 61 points from LeBron, and that probably will not happen again. Probably. I think the Bobcats might be able to steal a game at home, for the first postseason win in franchise history, so I'll say the Heat win in five.