MIAMI — There are plenty of things the Miami Heat is going to do to the Charlotte Bobcats. The Bobcats can’t afford to be doing things to themselves.
Like turnovers – which they did in their 99-88 playoff-opening loss Sunday afternoon at American Airlines Arena.
The Bobcats finished the regular season with the fewest turnovers in the league at just more than 12 per game. They committed 15 Sunday. That doesn’t sounds so egregious until you add the fact the Heat converted those 15 giveaways into 20 points.
“We can’t give a team like Miami free points,” said center Al Jefferson, who played most of this game with a foot injury – a ripped left plantar fascia – that might hinder him the rest of the series.
“We’re going to have to limit our turnovers. Their defense is amazing, the way they can turn it up. We got loose with the ball.”
In particular, point guard Kemba Walker got loose. He committed six turnovers. Charlotte’s coaches had been warning the players constantly about Miami’s takeaway style. The Heat is last in the NBA in rebounding, but Miami mitigates that by being among the NBA’s best at stealing the ball and converting at the other end.
“They’ve got great hands, and they benefit from their length,” Walker said. “But I’ve got to be better.”
The Bobcats have six players in their rotation who had never played in the playoffs before Sunday. You wouldn’t have known that from the game’s beginning, when Charlotte led by as much as nine points. But the game got away from the Bobcats midway through the second half. Three turnovers during a five-minute span of the fourth quarter contributed to Miami’s lead growing from 10 to 20 points.
“We’ve been crippled by turnovers this season,” said Heat superstar LeBron James, who had 27 points and nine rebounds. “I think we’ve learned the value of possessions. You can’t be turning the ball over, especially against a young, aggressive team like them.”
The Heat limited its turnovers to nine, resulting in five Charlotte points.
“If we’re going to have 15 turnovers, we aren’t going to win,” Bobcats coach Steve Clifford said.
That was the most glaring problem but not the only one. The Heat’s ability to drive the ball created a huge disparity in free-throw attempts. The Heat got to the foul line 26 times to the Bobcats’ 12. Walker took six free throws, but no other Bobcat reached the foul line more than twice.
Jefferson never took a free throw in more than 35 minutes played. But that speaks in part to how his foot injury might have limited him. After making his first four shots – before the injury – Jefferson was 5-of-13 the rest of the game.
“We’re a totally different team without him,” said Clifford, harkening back to when Jefferson missed nine of the first 12 games with a severe ankle sprain. Clifford said he believes his team is as dependent on Jefferson offensively as any team is on one player.
Jefferson heard a “pop” in his left foot that clearly indicated a rip. He was able to return to the game only because of a pain-killing injection.
He vowed to play on. Game 2 will be Wednesday in Miami.
“I’ve just got to suck it up,” Jefferson said. “I’ll be fine for the remainder of the series.”
“Fine” might be a relative term. The issue might not be so much Jefferson’s availability as his effectiveness, particularly at the defensive end.
There was plenty of talk around the Heat locker room about Jefferson’s limping. Miami big man Chris Bosh speculated Jefferson might see a heavy diet going forward of pick-and-rolls that would force him to change direction quickly at the defensive end.
“You could tell he was out there playing on one leg,” Bosh said. “Once we saw that, we wanted to go at him and challenge him to see where he was pain-wise.”
Bonnell: 704-358-5129; Twitter: @rick_bonnell