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Steve Clifford's coaching chess match with Erik Spoelstra key to Charlotte Hornets playoff success

Head coach Steve Clifford has done a great job at bringing the Charlotte Hornets back to the top10 in defensive efficiency for the third time. Now, he has an important job ahead of him in Charlotte's most promising playoffs run since the early 2000s.

Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

To shamelessly borrow a remark often made by Professor Zach Lowe, you almost cannot rate a coach's performance within the constraints of a single season. The fulfillment of a head coach's vision requires work over a longer period of time and a team's record in a particular year isn't necessarily indicative of his success or failure.

In Steve Clifford's case, it's important to acknowledge his overall body of work while leading the Charlotte Hornets.

In Clifford's third season coaching the Hornets, the team finished in the top-10 in defensive efficiency and first in defensive rebounding percentage. He did the same thing last year, as well as his first year in Charlotte, too. Talk about a fulfillment of Steve Clifford's vision...

Season performance

Following a disappointing 33-49 season in 2014-15, this was very much a "do or die" season for Clifford to prove his worth.

Was Clifford's Hornets' defensive success simply predicated on very conservative rules and a slow pace? Would Charlotte retain its previous level of play on this side of the court without defensive ace Michael Kidd-Gilchrist?

And what about the team's poor offense? How much is Steve Clifford himself responsible for an uninspiring, clogged and Al Jefferson-heavy, third-worst offense in the league?

Let's put it this way: the team knocked those expectations out of the park.

With general manager Rich Cho adding several players capable of creating offense and/or hitting the 3-pointer to the roster, Charlotte turned into an unrecognizable ball-whizzing and 3-point shooting motion offense when compared to its previous counterpart.

The space created by shooters and Cody Zeller, slid into the more fitting center spot, finally allowed the offense to flow as its more dangerous creators came off screens curling to the middle of the court in motion.

One or two of Charlotte's three main ball handlers (Kemba Walker, Nicolas Batum and Jeremy Lin) coming off the standard "Floppy" set, then reading and reacting to what the defense gives them has become commonplace.

Even more important, though, is the fact that despite the increase in pace and number of 3-point field goals attempted (the team jumped from 24th to 4th in this category), the Hornets remained just as stingy on defense.

While other teams, like the once-better-than-the-Hornets Washington Wizards, talked about playing faster, shooting more 3's and failed, the Hornets managed to do that while maintaining their defensive identity. After a decent-sized roster turnover, a style change on offense and the injury to MKG, the Hornets remained a group who know their scheme and executes it night in, night out and rarely beat themselves on the defensive end.

With the improvement of certain players and addition of others certainly acknowledged, Steve Clifford also deserves a bravo for this regular season.

Playoff preview

Naturally, a 3-6 series between two teams who have the same regular season record is likely to be a close one. Acknowledging that it is a players' league and they ultimately swing series and title runs, the importance of in-game coaching might get huge in the bout against the Miami Heat.

Decisions regarding front-court minute allocation loom as the most important rotational decisions for coach Steve Clifford.

Ever since Chris Bosh last played for Miami, the team's 18 most-used lineups have had a wing in the power forward position. Such "four-out" lineups may prove to be trouble for back-up power forward Frank Kaminskyas I have already written previously. The possibility of him becoming rather unplayable is definitely there.

Meanwhile, Hassan Whiteside has been back in the starting lineup for three straight games for the first time since January, which creates a bit of a dilemma for the coaching staff. It would be reasonable to try and realign as much of Al Jefferson's minutes as you can with Whiteside's.

Big Al was fairly successful in the low post against Whiteside the two times they got to square off. Moreover, as pointed out by Prof. Lowe, the North Carolina native has actually been among the worst post defenders in the league. Opponents have hit 51 percent of post-up shots against Miami's center, per Synergy Sports.

Cody Zeller is a smart defensive player who knows his responsibilities but Whiteside can always become an offensive rebound threat against him. Zeller could make more sense against the speedy Heat lineups which don't have Hassan Whiteside on them (at least some minutes against the Gastonian product are a given though).

While on the topic of facing said small ball lineups, it will be interesting to see how often coach Clifford goes the offensive route and plays the four of Kemba Walker - Courtney Lee - Nicolas Batum - Marvin Williams, Charlotte's best four among 30 most used four-man units (113.9 - 98.4 per 100 possessions, net rating of +15.5).

Courtney Lee has earned the coach's trust as a steady commodity, however, Jeremy Lin has withstood most tests of guarding the number two position, even if stopping Dwyane Wade's nifty post game can be a tough responsibility.

Lin's presence on the court might help against the pesky Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson, who have already given Charlotte's guards some fits. A third creator on the court could ease the pressure off Batum or Walker, in case one of them is facing extra attention.

With that in mind, Miami aren't the Atlanta Hawks either, whose aggressive pick-and-roll defense has troubled Charlotte's outside creators. Whiteside and Amar'e Stoudemire primarily drop back on pick-and-rolls which does give our creation troika the space they desire.

Clifford though always might give preference to Charlotte's willingness and ability to switch against Heat-like teams over having a third creator out there. Including Courtney Lee in the switches that Batum and Williams (and sometimes Zeller) execute against such wing-heavy teams probably is a better bet.

Rotational decisions alone can swing a game or two. Here's to Steve Clifford continuing his fine work and making the right ones!