The Miami Heat flew home from Boston on Wednesday night feeling both fortunate to have the No. 3 seed and happy it likely won’t have to see the Celtics again until next season.
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But that’s about where the Heat’s run of luck and good feelings could end.
The Charlotte Hornets, Miami’s first round playoff draw, are no pushover.
Not only did the Hornets split the season series with Miami and finish with the same 48-34 regular season record, but Charlotte also ended the season 21-8 after the All-Star break. Only the record-setting 73-win Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs (67-15) won more than the Hornets over the final two months of the regular season.
Aside from the Warriors, Charlotte was also the only other team to beat the Heat at home after the break, knocking Miami off 109-106 back on March 17.
So, even though the Heat will own home court when the best-of-seven series kicks off Sunday at 5:30 p.m. at AmericanAirlines Arena, Hornets center Al Jefferson and guards Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lin are more than capable of stealing that edge away.
“I think the series will be very similar to what our records are,” coach Erik Spoelstra said after Wednesday’s deflating 98-88 loss in Boston.
“You have two really evenly matched teams. The styles are a little bit different. But, they’re extremely well coached. They have some corporate knowledge of guys being in the playoffs together, playing some seasons together. And you can see that they’ve responded with a very good regular season. This is going to be a challenge for both teams. This is what you want.”
History tells us this might not be a very long playoff run for Miami.
Although the Heat has won three NBA titles since 2006, Miami is only 1-8 in postseason series when it has finished the regular season lower than the No. 2 seed. That series victory came back in 2004 when Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem were rookies and beat the New Orleans Hornets in seven games. The Heat then lost to the Pacers in the conference semifinals.
Miami, seeded third for only the second time in franchise history (the Heat was swept by Charlotte 3-0 as the No. 3 seed in the opening round in 2001), swept Charlotte in four games two seasons ago in the opening round of the playoffs. But that was when LeBron James was still in a Heat uniform, Charlotte’s team nickname was the Bobcats and Heat forward Josh McRoberts was a teammate of Walker and Jefferson.
In that series, Walker (19.5 points per game, 6.0 assists) and Jefferson (18.7 points, 9.3 rebounds) gave the Heat fits. They have again this season with Walker averaging 19.5 points and 5.3 assists in four games against Miami and Jefferson averaging 19 points and 7.5 assists in two games against the Heat.
But those two haven’t been the only problems. Forwards Marvin Williams (16.8 points, 5.8 rebounds, 50 percent from 3-point range in 4 games) and Nicolas Batum (14.8 points, 7.0 rebounds, 7.0 assists vs. Miami in 4 games) have also caused havoc from beyond the three-point line.
This Hornets team, clearly more talented than the one Miami beat two years ago in the playoffs, has been the fourth-best three-point shooting team (37.9%) since the break and allowed the sixth-fewest points (100.2) over the same span. Charlotte is also one of the better free throw shooting teams (79.3%) in the league this season.
“He’s the engine that gets them going,” Spoelstra said of Walker, who has posted 13 games of 30 points or more including a season-high 52 in a win over Utah in January. “But I’ll tell you what they have a lot of offensive weapons and a system that [coach] Steve [Clifford] has put together it really fits their personnel. So it’s not just Kemba Walker. So there’s definitely some things we’ll have to go to school on.”
With Wade (152 career playoff starts), Haslem (84 career playoff starts) Joe Johnson (81 career playoff starts), Amar’e Stoudemire (60 careeer playoff starts) and Luol Deng (42 career playoff starts), the Heat have over 555 games of combined playoff experience on its active playoff roster — much more than Charlotte (237 career playoff games, 123 playoff starts).
But as a collective group — aside from Wade and Haslem — this will be the first time most of the Heat roster goes into the postseason together. For rookies Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson and starting center Hassan Whiteside, a North Carolina native, this will be their first venture into the playoffs.
“I’m excited man,” Winslow said Wednesday. “I was really excited, more excited than my usual game tonight. It just felt like a playoff game. I was just ready for this moment. That’s why I wanted to come to the NBA — to play in these playoffs, feel the energy and try to come out a champion. I’m a part of a great organization. I have a chance to win. It feels good.”
Wade (16.0 points, 4.3 assists) and Johnson (15.3 points, 46.2% from 3-point range) have posted the Heat’s best scoring numbers against the Hornets.
Whiteside, meanwhile, has struggled. The league’s leading shot blocker has averaged just 9.3 points and 7.8 rebounds and at times has slipped guarding the slick-moving Jefferson in the paint.
But as Wade said after Wednesday’s debacle in Boston, none of what happened during the regular season really matters any more.
“For us, 82 games, it’s over. The regular season is over,” he said. “Obviously God wanted us to get the third seed. So we move on and start thinking about the Charlotte Hornets and preparing for that and what we need to do in the playoffs.”
Game 1: Sunday at Miami, 5:30 p.m. (TNT)
Game 2: Wednesday at Miami, 7 p.m. (NBA TV)
Game 3: April 23 at Charlotte, 5:30 (TNT)
Game 4: April 25 at Charlotte, TBD
Game 5: April 27 at Miami, TBD
Game 6: April 29 at Charlotte, TBD
Game 7: May 1 at Miami, TBD