Not long ago, Michael Jordan used to sit at the end of his team’s bench in this arena just to get a closer look at the Heat.
Jordan, the majority owner of the Charlotte Hornets, was nowhere to be seen on Wednesday night at Time Warner Cable Arena, but who could blame him?
A chance to beat the Heat these days just doesn’t give off the same buzz, even when the newly rebranded team in Charlotte literally has buzzing, beehive sounds dancing through the building whenever something remotely positive happens.
The new-old Charlotte Hornets lost to the Heat in the first round of the 2014 playoffs as the Charlotte Bobcats, but now the place looks completely different. The arena is purple and teal again and the arena has the words “BUZZ CITY” lording from high above the upper deck in at least six-foot font.
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The team is a little different, too, even if the addition of Lance Stephenson only added some extra muscle to a squad that was already pretty tough. The Hornets pushed around the Heat on Wednesday, defeating Miami 96-89.
The Heat never lost to the then-Bobcats while LeBron James played in Miami — 20 wins in a row, including the playoffs. That streak ended in the Heat’s first game against the Hornets and first against Charlotte without James.
Charlotte (2-3) outrebounded Miami (3-2) 49-36, and in the paint was where this game was decided. Big Al Jefferson scored 28 points for the Hornets to go with 10 rebounds, and Stephenson, the firebrand formerly with the Indiana Pacers, had eight points, 13 rebounds and four assists.
During one memorable play under the basket, three Heat defenders were within two feet of a rebound. But Stephenson somehow fought his way into position and pulled away the possession.
He went to the ground fighting and called timeout to give the Hornets second life.
“It seemed like we could never get over the hump with them, and most of it was decided with 50-50, ball-in-the-air, ball-on-the-floor type of plays,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “Everything else was probably evenly played.”
Dwyane Wade finished with 25 points and seven assists, and he noted after the game while talking with point guard Norris Cole that the team only committed eight turnovers.
Numbers like that used to mean certain victory for the Heat.
It’s no longer that easy, or that simple.
The loss in Charlotte was the Heat’s fourth game in five nights, and Wade played in them all.
That, too, would not have happened last season.
Wade said after the game that he felt fine.
“He’s been working,” Spoelstra said of Wade. “He hasn’t missed a day since that first day of training camp. He’s been putting in a lot of time.
“Most of the time that he has been putting in is behind the scenes. … He just has to keep moving forward. I have just been very encouraged by his commitment.”
The Hornets built a 15-point lead in the fourth quarter, but the Heat trimmed that margin to three with 2:17 to play.
An improvisational give-and-go from Mario Chalmers to rookie Shabazz Napier cut the Hornets’ lead to 88-85, and then another beautiful cutting play — this time from Chalmers to Wade — gave the Heat life after a three-pointer by Hornets guard Kemba Walker.
That’s where the comeback ended though.
The Heat trailed by four points with a minute to play when Wade tossed a pass intended for Chris Bosh out of bounds.
Walker then knocked down a pair of free throws for Charlotte to ice the game.
“Right now, we’re not the team capable of giving a home team the edge,” Wade said. “They beat us with the effort plays.”
Bosh finished with 23 points and 13 rebounds. He has scored at least 20 points in the first five games of the season and already has recorded three double-doubles.
Bosh’s four consecutive points in the fourth quarter helped spark the Heat’s near comeback, but Bosh echoed Wade’s concerns after the game.
“It’s very tough coming back whether you’re at home or on the road from double digits, so we just have to have that all-around focus really throughout the whole game because we don’t have that grace period,” Bosh said.
No James, in other words, to bring the team back like he did so many times in the fourth quarters of games.
Only Wade and Bosh scored in double figures.
The Heat was missing a third offensive presence, but Jordan knew that long before the game ever started.