First thing's first: this is an important game.
Really important. I won't say absolutely vital (it's not that late in the season yet), but again, so I'm clear: this game = important.
Since regaining a relative amount of health (Al Jefferson is still hurt, and Kemba Walker is questionable for tonight's game, so that's two starters down, which is actually pretty good for this team!), the Charlotte Hornets have been inching their way back into a playoff spot. They're not quite there yet (a win would, though, get them back to .500), but it's clear that one of the teams they'll be fighting with on the bubble for the rest of the season is the Miami Heat, who the Hornets face at home tonight.
So far, the two division rivals have already met twice, each taking a home game, the Heat winning by 10 points in late October for the season opener, and the Hornets winning by 18 in Charlotte in early December. So, good news, the Hornets would have already won if this was soccer.
More good news: the win over the Cavaliers on Wednesday was truly energizing for this team. They needed an upset win before the All-Star break, and they got it with a very strong performance over the reigning and current Eastern Conference champions. They'll need to carry that good play over to this game, the first in a Southeastern Division back-to-back (the Hornets face the Wizards tomorrow night).
But enough about the team you've been following all season. Let's talk about the other team.
The Heat are healthy. While the Hornets' injury list has lately resembled an impossibly long scroll from a Warner Brothers cartoon, the Heat have managed to avoid any major injuries. Also any minor injuries. This type of injury discrepancy between two otherwise evenly-matched division rivals is the level of bad luck that's supposed to plague the Cleveland Browns, or the Oakland Raiders, or that guy who got struck by lightning seven times. Not us.
Regardless, here the Hornets are, and now that they're only missing two vital players (plus a couple others who probably haven't regained full strength yet), they'll be able to compete with the team that features a pair of future Hall of Famers and four Finals appearances in the last five seasons.
The Heat are basically all-defense, no-offense this season, which is the type of thing you get when you draft
crappy Michael Kidd-Gilchrist Justise Winslow. The Heat feature one of the NBA's top defenses, and one of the NBA's worst offenses, ranking 6th in defensive efficiency and 26th in offensive efficiency. Pretty big split. You might remember splits like that from several Bobcats teams in years past.
The Heat's offense is coming entirely from inside the perimeter at this point, their .328 team mark from three ranking 28th in the NBA, but still featuring a pretty strong shooting percentage thanks to a strong inside-out game run by Chris Bosh, and a strong inside-in game run by Dwyane Wade. Hassan Whiteside is quickly becoming (if he hasn't already become) the team's focal point on both ends, where he's steadily efficient running a post game on offense, and incredibly effective on the defensive end. The Hornets' offensive game plan will revolve around avoiding Whiteside as much as possible, and I don't blame them for doing so. Whiteside is a gigantic human being who has a propensity for trying to fight his opponents. In other words: I'm scared of him. He also averages nearly four blocks per game, which is probably more relevant to this topic.
Much was made of the Heat's acquisition of Goran Dragic, who at times looked like a star with the Phoenix Suns, but honestly he's been pretty bad this year, and Beno Udrih isn't much of a backup either, so look for the Hornets' point guards to have themselves a game in this one. They'll have their opportunities.
Did y'all know Amare Stoudemire was on the Heat? Hmm.
One of the reasons the Heat have been able to create such a good team defense despite only having one real plus defender (Winslow is coming along, but he's not quite there yet) is because they avoid foul trouble, especially to Whiteside. You might think that a physical defensive center would get himself into foul trouble pretty easily, but just like Kelly Olynyk thinking he could lightly push Whiteside in the shoulder without Whiteside blindsiding him like an 18-wheeler, you'd be wrong. He averages 3.1 fouls per 36 minutes, so that's not normally an issue for the Heat. The Hornets, on the other hand, are very good at causing the other team to foul. That bodes well for Charlotte if they can make that gameplan work. If not, I would suggest they stay far away from Whiteside, and try not to provoke him. Even the thought of Whiteside trying to fight somebody could cause Cody Zeller to miss five games with a shoulder injury.
It's an important game for the Hornets, and while not quite a must-win, losing this one in particular would just be another game they'd have to make up later, and they will be running out of later soon. Getting back to .500 before the All-Star break would be a very nice accomplishment for this team after dealing with all the adversity they suffered through, and would undoubtedly be a nice boost to locker room morale. Plus, ya know, no more losing record.