MIAMI (AP) — If the Miami Heat are going to watch their season and reign atop the NBA end at the hands of the Charlotte Bobcats, then fates of the franchises will have to change in a hurry.
Upset odds look miniscule. Miami has lost only four of its last 23 games against the Bobcats, going 15-0 in the series since LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade teamed up with the Heat.
But it’s numbers like those that the Heat are rendering irrelevant heading into Game 1 of the Eastern Conference first-round matchup on Sunday. Miami may deserve the confidence of a two-time defending champion bidding for a fourth straight NBA Finals trip, but the Heat aren’t overlooking any team heading into these playoffs.
“Anything before this season doesn’t matter,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “They had a different team, a different coach. The only thing that matters is this year. Our last three games against them, we had to dig back from three deficits to come back and win. That has not gone lost in our preparation.”
Here are the numbers that do seem to matter to Miami these days: The Bobcats were 20-9 since the All-Star break, have held opponents to under 50 percent shooting in 18 of their last 19 games and had the league’s lowest average turnovers-per-game over that same stretch, just 11.6 giveaways per night.
“This is a good ballclub,” Wade said. “This is not the Charlotte Bobcats that everyone thinks of when you hear the name.”
Al Jefferson and Steve Clifford changed all that. Jefferson’s first year in Charlotte was a colossal success, with him averaging 21.8 points and 10.8 rebounds. Clifford inherited a team that was 28-120 over the last two seasons and won 43 games — and a seven-win franchise two years ago is now a seventh-seed in the East playoffs.
“It’s time to take it to another level,” Jefferson said. “We reached one goal. Regardless of what happens in the playoffs, we are one of the teams that stood out this year and we are proud of that. So now it’s time to stick together more than ever.”
To stop James and the Heat, Clifford knows it’ll take more than just sticking together.
“There are only so many things you can do,” Clifford said. “I know this: The more aggressive you are with him, the more layups and open shoots the other guys shoot. He’s a phenomenal player.”
Here’s five things to know heading into Game 1 on Sunday:
EXPERIENCE: Everyone on Charlotte’s roster, combined, has a total of 858 playoff points and 15 starts in the postseason. The Heat numbers in those categories: 14,965 points and 727 starts. Plus, the Heat franchise has 103 all-time playoff wins, while the Bobcats have exactly zero. In theory, none of that should matter Sunday, but most would agree playoff basketball is just different — so Charlotte will probably have to do some learning on the fly.
ODEN’S ROLE: Miami brought Greg Oden in to aid its frontcourt, especially at playoff time. And the 7-foot Oden had a role in this series before it started. Oden has been working as the designated Jefferson-imitator in Heat practices, trying to emulate some of the things that Charlotte’s go-to guy does down low.
DEFENDING LEBRON: James had the 61-point game against the Bobcats that everyone remembers. But Charlotte didn’t have any answers for him all season. James’ “other” games against Charlotte: 34, 30 and 26 points. His averages for the season against the Bobcats: 37.8 points, 6.0 rebounds, 5.5 assists on 63 percent shooting.
DEFENDING AL: Jefferson is now a major problem for Miami. The winner of the past two East player of the month awards averaged 25.3 points and 15.3 rebounds in three games against Miami, shooting 57 percent. His career numbers against Miami entering this season: 13.4 points and 9.4 rebounds per game on 46 percent shooting.
SIMILAR STARTS: People rave about the job Clifford has done, with good reason. His record in this debut season leading a team few people expected much from is 43-39. That’s the same record a rookie coach had with another lowly regarded team in 2008-09. His name? Erik Spoelstra.