Goran Dragic spent most of the first round of these playoffs chasing Kemba Walker around in circles and fighting frustration.
In the end, the Heat’s $85-million point guard saved his best for Game 7. And Charlotte’s leader did quite the opposite.
Led by Dragic’s 25 points — his second-highest scoring performance of the entire season — the Heat stormed past the Hornets 106-73 on Sunday and into the second round of the playoffs. The 33-point margin of victory matched the Heat’s third-largest blowout in the playoffs and was the fifth-largest blowout ever in a Game 7.
The Heat, which trailed in the series 3-2, will play at Toronto in Game 1 at 8 p.m. Tuesday. The Raptors outlasted the Pacers 89-84 in Game 7 of their series late Sunday night.
“I felt like the paint was more open so I could attack,” said Dragic, who scored 18 of his points in the paint — the area that ultimately decided Miami’s fate in the series.
“It was a little bit easier than the games before.”
On Sunday afternoon, the story in Miami was Dragic and how he turned the tables on Walker, who scored 37 points in Game 6 and laid an egg in Game 7 with only nine points on 3-of-16 shooting in 36 minutes.
After averaging just 12.3 points and shooting 37.3 percent through the first six games of the series, Dragic finished 11 of 17 from the field with six rebounds, four assists and just his second dunk of the season during a 20-2 Heat run in the third quarter.
Miami, which led by as many as 38 points in the second half, outscored the Hornets 58-22 in the paint, 10-2 on fast-break points and 18-5 on second-chance points.
“I am not a prophet or anything, but I knew we were winning this game,” said Dwyane Wade, who had 12 points and six rebounds in 25 minutes, and along with fellow starters Dragic, Luol Deng and Hassan Whiteside sat the entire fourth quarter.
“I think for me as a leader, I am just really proud of my guys and really proud of us going into Game 6 and winning that game.
“It is an amazing feeling when you are fighting versus a team who is just as equal as you are and are able to pull it out in Game 7.”
Sunday’s win was the Heat’s fourth in a row in a Game 7 at home. It also improved coach Erik Spoelstra’s record to 15-5 in the playoffs when an opponent faces elimination and 8-4 when the Heat faces elimination.
It also marked the first time Spoelstra won a playoff series without LeBron James.
“You have to go through the fire together,” Spoelstra said. “That is when you truly grow.”
Miami led 54-42 at the half. After Walker hit a jumper nine seconds into the third quarter, Miami answered with an 11-0 run and didn’t look back.
The Heat came out with more energy from the outset, getting to most 50-50 balls and outrebounding the Hornets 17-7 to help build a 29-18 lead after the first quarter.
Defensively, the Heat did a good job suffocating Walker in the pick-and-roll offense and forcing Al Jefferson to pass out of the paint with double teams, something Miami hadn’t done much until Sunday.
Walker had only two points at the half on 1-of-6 shooting in 21 minutes and Jefferson had four points in 14 minutes.
Those defensive adjustments forced the ball into rookie Frank Kaminksy a lot early in the game. He took seven of the Hornets’ first 17 shots and was 2 of 8 at the half with five points.
Hornets coach Steve Clifford then turned to Nicolas Batum to start the second half in Kaminsky’s place. But none of it did Charlotte any good.
Whiteside finished with five blocks, 10 points and 12 rebounds in 28 minutes. His 24 blocks in the series set the team record for a seven-game series, besting Alonzo Mourning’s mark of 21 blocks in the 2005 Eastern Conference Finals.
“With Kemba we really made him play defense more,” Whiteside said. “He made it a tough series for us. We attacked him so we had to play defense. They don’t have any shot blockers so we were at the rim.”