It took fewer than 10 seconds for Frank Kaminsky's first playoff start to appear to go awry. After getting lost on a screen, the rookie forward scrambled to catch Miami's Luol Deng. As Deng slipped into the corner, Goran Dragic sent the ball to the sideline. One wide-open three-pointer later, the Heat had an early lead.
For head coach Steve Clifford and the Hornets, that was all just part of the plan, even despite Deng's hot shooting in the first two games of the series.
Clifford inserted the 2015 Wooden Award winner into the starting lineup alongside Al Jefferson to lead a Nicolas Batum-less Charlotte team to its first postseason victory since 2002. When the dust settled, it was Kaminsky, and not Jefferson, who created chaos and changed the fortune of the game with his interior-clogging presence. By vacuum-sealing the paint with defenders and daring Miami to shoot, the Hornets avoided a 0-3 hole.
How Frank Kaminsky forced the Heat to gamble
Charlotte threw their 2015 first-round draft choice into the starting lineup despite a combined four-point, three-rebound performance in the first two playoff games of his career. In 35 minutes of court time, he scored 15 points, pulled down six rebounds and helped hold Miami to just 34.2 percent shooting
With Jefferson and Kaminsky in the lineup, the Hornets rolled out a frontcourt that could score from the inside-out. However, once they doubled back on defense, Clifford's strategy was clear. Despite hot Miami shooting in the first two games, Charlotte was going to clog the lane with big bodies and long arms, forcing Miami to beat them from the perimeter. The Hornets conceded a speed advantage to a smaller Heat lineup, but they bet quickness wouldn't be fatal if Miami couldn't create gaps with its shooting.
That bet finally paid off. Kaminsky's duty, for one night at least, was an interior deterrent. Putting him on Deng, a career 33.4 percent three-point shooter, forced the Heat to hope the veteran would continue to perform above his averages from the outside. The rookie set up away from the ball with a foot the paint, giving him an easier avenue to collapse on high-percentage drives and daring Deng and the other poor-shooting Heat perimeter players to shoot their way to victory.
At first, it looked like the strategy would again backfire. Deng continued his hot streak, draining four three-pointers in the game's first 5:30. The veteran's ability to punch through screens and pop out to the perimeter left the seven-footer chasing behind, creating open looks.
But Deng's explosive start fizzled quickly; he only hit one more three for the rest of the contest after beginning the series by nailing 10 of his first 15. Even more impressively, Kaminsky's paint-gravitating defense pestered Deng into a 1-for-6 performance on his two-point attempts and four turnovers.
The veteran wing wasn't the only victim of the Hornets' new defensive strategy. Rookie forward Justise Winslow made just 27 percent of his long-range shots this season. When he hit the lineup in Deng's place, the gravity that drew Kaminsky toward the paint grew even stronger.
Kaminsky wasn't the only one collapsing whenever the Heat drove the ball past the perimeter. Charlotte keyed in on the backcourt trio of Wade, Dragic and Joe Johnson to eliminate easy baskets from their opponents' most dynamic scorers. Other players like Winslow and Josh Richardson didn't garner the same kind of suffocating treatment.
At its most effective, Charlotte's strategy put at least three players -- and two long-armed giants -- in a direct line between the Heat's most dangerous scorers and the basket. The statement was clear. Charlotte was forcing Miami's role players to beat them, again.
This time, it worked. As a result, the Heat's star-studded backcourt combined to make just 14 of its 44 field goal attempts in the 16-point loss.
Kaminsky's offense put the game out of reach
On the other end, the Hornets moved in the opposite direction early on. As he has all season, Kaminsky, a seven-footer, vacated the paint possession after possession when the team's true post scorer, Jefferson, found the ball inside. Once the ball hit the low block, Jefferson got all the space he needed to put in work near the rim. Meanwhile, Kaminsky didn't move from the perimeter until the ball was passed or a shot went up. This didn't do wonders for Charlotte's offensive rebounding (they only snagged 16.4 percent of their misses, a low number), but that space helped Jefferson score 10 points early in the first half.
After Kaminsky headed to the locker room with just four points and an 0-for-2 performance from behind the arc, Charlotte revised its game plan to give its rookie starter more touches in the second half. Despite the advice of Patrick Ewing and Michael Jordan, Kaminsky's offense was most effective driving towards the basket (11 points) rather than in post-up situations (1-for-4 on the night).
That offensive spark drove the Hornets to their first playoff win in over a decade. Kaminsky had nine points in an 18-0 run and 13 third-quarter points to effectively decide the game with 12 minutes to play.
What can the Heat do from here?
Clifford's usage of Kaminsky dialed in on the relatively weak three-point shooting from Miami's small-ball power forwards. Deng and Winslow combined to make just 32.3 percent of their long range shots this season and regressed to that mean after shooting well in the first two games. Deng briefly proved he can catch fire early on, but his relative anonymity in the final three quarters contributed to a 16-point defeat. The Heat have three-point shooting wings Gerald Green and Dorell Wright on the roster as well, but neither has played more than five minutes in a game this series. Outshooting Charlotte's dare-you defense is therefore no safe bet.
A stronger post presence could take advantage of Kaminsky's lack of big-game experience inside, but Miami lacks the kind of player who can take Kaminsky into deep water near the rim. Amar'e Stoudemire and Udonis Haslem were powerful forwards in a past life, but each is a faded shell of the player they once were. Teams like Atlanta or Toronto have the tools for a quick counter to the Hornets' new defensive set, but the Heat do not.
However, forcing switches created defensive confusion that gave Miami's stars the room they needed to shoot. With Charlotte discombobulated in the third quarter, Dragic earned a matchup against Kaminsky and an eventual wide-open jumper.
Kaminsky doesn't have the speed to match up with Miami's guards, and pushing him directly into the play means one fewer big man near the rim for Charlotte. If Dragic and Wade can tangle Kaminsky in screens and push the ball right at him, they can turn his length and presence in the paint into their own advantage.
If not, they may be set for another night where scoring in the paint means shooting over five sets of outstretched arms. We'll see if Miami's shooters can outperform their regular-season numbers again in Game 4.