Will Manso: Heat-Hornets preview/prediction

Heat Playoff run begins on Sunday


MIAMI – Here we go again. 

The Miami Heat begin the 2016 NBA playoffs on Sunday, and while they were only out of the postseason for one year, it felt like a lot longer.

That's what happens when you're so used to winning after making four straight NBA Finals.

Unlike that incredible stretch, Miami doesn't enter the playoffs as the clear favorite to win the Eastern Conference.  I'm not even sure you can say they're the clear cut favorite to when their first round series versus Charlotte.

The Hornets were quietly one of the best teams in the NBA after the All-Star break.

While much of the attention in the East was on the Cavs, Raptors, Heat, Hawks and Celtics, Charlotte was better than all those teams down the stretch.

How did they do it?  That's where the challenge will begin for the Heat in trying to win this series.

I really see three areas of importance that Miami needs to contain and control.

Let's start with Kemba Walker.  He's a dynamic point guard and one of those players who has the ability to hit a different level and take over a game.

His matchup against Goran Dragic is intriguing, but he won't be stopped by one guy.  Miami will have to get after him defensively.  He likes to attack the rim, but he also has the ability to shoot the 3-pointer.  The Heat can't allow him to be a one man wrecking crew.  It won't be easy, but slowing him down may be the biggest key to this series.

Walker's ability to drive and attack leads to the next key for Miami against the Hornets.  The Heat must get out on the Hornets shooters.  Charlotte lives around the 3-point line.  Walker's drives tend to lead to a kick out pass to open shooters.  The Hornets were in the top five in the NBA in attempting 3's. 

When Miami was at its worst defensively this season is when they didn't get out to shooters quick enough and allowed teams to get wide open looks.

Good shooting teams like Charlotte will take advantage of those looks.  If the Heat is slow to rotate defensively and the Hornets knock down 3's, Miami could be in big trouble

Finally, and maybe even as important as those first two points, the Heat must control the paint.

Charlotte was one of the toughest teams in the league to score against in the paint.

The Heat was one of the best offensively in the league in scoring in the paint.

It's the classic case of something's got to give.

Hassan Whiteside will likely be the key factor in this.  Erik Spoesltra inserted him back in the starting line-up late in the season for moments like this.

His length, rebounding ability and sheer presence down low makes him the X-factor in any series Miami will play this postseason.

Whiteside is unlike anything any team can counter with.  The Hornets do have a healthy Al Jefferson and some big bodies who will pound Hassan inside.  It's what they do well defensively.

How Hassan responds to that pounding and aggression will be a major factor in Miami's ability to win this series.  He can't back down, but he also can't be overly aggressive and get frustrated when things don't go his way.  And trust me, there will be moments in this series when they won't. 

But make no mistake about it, Whiteside has the ability to dominate this series down low.

The Heat needs to have the advantage in the paint. 

I'll add one more potential factor to this series and that's the play of Miami's young bench.  Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson were both key factors in the Heat's post All-Star break 19-10 record after Chris Bosh went out.

Both need to play that tenacious defense they did so often this season and Richardson's ability to knock down 3's can be a big help in combating the Hornets ability to hit from long range.

I spoke with Richardson after practice on Saturday and he told me the moment shouldn't seem too big for the younger players on the team because of what the veterans taught them all season.

And speaking of those veterans, notice two of the names I haven't even mentioned yet for the Heat: Dwyane Wade and Joe Johnson.

These are the cool veteran leaders who Miami will turn to when that big shot is needed, and each will be counted on to come through.

Each has shown time and time again throughout their careers that they can do so.  I expect it to be no different in this series.

The bottom line is this: these are two evenly matched teams with a real specific style laid out by their coaches.

If the Hornets hit 3's and slow down the Heat in the paint, I can see Miami not making it out of this series

The difference for the Heat though is that they have the veteran players with the playoff experience to make the crucial plays down the stretch.

I expect every game to be close and this series to be one of the better ones of the first round of the playoffs.

In the end, the Heat find a way to advance.

Series prediction: Heat in 6.

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