On Sunday, the Charlotte Hornets and Miami Heat begin a series that could be one of the closest first-round matchups in the NBA playoffs.
The sixth-seeded Hornets finished the season tied with the third-seeded Heat at 48-34, and the teams split their four-game season series.
Charlotte finished with the fifth-best record in franchise history; only the Warriors and Spurs had a better record than the Hornets (25-9) since Feb. 1.
“In the summer when all the predictions were coming out, a lot of (the players) said to me, ‘I don’t understand why people don’t think we’re going to be good,’” Hornets coach Steve Clifford said Friday. “And I think that there’s nothing more important than looking around the locker room and saying, if we play well we can be good. We’re not overpowering, but when we have everybody ready we’re damn good. And they know that.”
Charlotte’s 15-win improvement from last season tied for the best in the league, and the Hornets have a chance to win their first playoff series since 2002. Here are some of the reasons the Hornets are in this position.
They bought into Clifford
Before the playoff pairings were decided, Clifford spent a chunk of his Tuesday and Wednesday watching tape of the Hawks and Heat and preparing for both possibilities.
He was already prepped for the Celtics, having played them on Monday. And knowing he still had a few days after the Orlando game to prepare for the opponent, he still wanted to dive in.
Clifford didn’t consider it wasted time. Every chance to watch film is an opportunity to pick up something about the game, he says.
In Clifford, the Hornets have one of basketball’s smartest minds currently on a bench. Owner Michael Jordan picked correctly in 2013, and he made sure Clifford wouldn’t hit the free-agent coaching market when he awarded Clifford with a well-earned contract extension through the 2018-19 season.
Hornets’ players gravitate to Clifford. They appreciate his honesty and transparency. They like how hard he works and how detailed he is.
He finished fourth in Coach of the Year voting in 2013, and he’s in the running for the award this year. He faces tough competition in Portland’s Terry Stotts, Toronto’s Dwayne Casey, Boston’s Brad Stevens, San Antonio’s Greg Popovich and the Golden State tandem of Luke Walton and Steve Kerr. But there’s no doubt Clifford belongs in the vote-getting category.
“One, the guys love playing for him, first and foremost,” forward Marvin Williams said. “I think everyone supports him and everyone believes in him. He makes basketball fun. Very meticulous about the things he does. Very locked in. Always trying to push you to get better as a team and as an individual. … He definitely should be in that conversation, no question.”
Walker is a winner
Kemba Walker has been the catalyst for the Hornets. Charlotte’s first-round pick from 2009, he played at an All-Star-like level for much of the season and he has earned consideration as one of the league’s most improved players.
He had career highs in points per game (20.9), field goal percentage (.427), 3-point percentage (.371), free-throw percentage (.847) and rebounds per game (4.4).
For the first four seasons of his career, Walker was, at best, a spotty shooter. Only once before did he finish a season shooting better than 40 percent.
Walker also led the league in scoring in late and close situations. Walker had 83 points this season in the final two minutes of the game when the contest was within four points.
Walker also is ferocious on the court, and it showed in the 82nd game of the regular season this week.
On a long outlet pass from Troy Daniels in the second quarter, Walker chased down the ball near the baseline. But his momentum was carrying him out of bounds, so he threw the ball into the corner for a Daniels’ 3-pointer.
Meanwhile, in the regular season finale with the playoffs days away, Walker crashed into a cameraman but was unharmed.
“I’m just playing the game,” Walker said. “Once I’m in between the line it doesn’t matter which game it is. I try to go out there and play as hard as possible. That’s just me. That’s just how I play.”
Batum is maxing out
The Hornets couldn’t have dreamed of their June trade for small forward Nic Batum working out better than it already has.
Charlotte sent Gerald Henderson and 2014 first-round pick Noah Vonleh to Portland in exchange for the Frenchman in the summer, and Batum has been one of the league’s most complete offensive players this year.
Batum has flourished with the Hornets after leaving a Trail Blazers team where he was third fiddle to LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard.
“That team was different. I had two All Stars, superstars with me,” Batum said. “My role is different right now for sure. We don’t have any All-Stars, except Kemba should have been. We have no ego on this team.”
Batum is one of only six qualified players in the league to average at least 14 points, six rebounds and five assists. The others are Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, James Harden, LeBron James and Russell Westbrook.
He’s in the final year of a four-year deal, and there’s little doubt Batum has done enough to earn a maximum contract this summer.
They rely on the 3-point shot
Charlotte averaged more than 100 points per game this season for the first time since the 1995-96 season, and it all had to do with 3-point shooting.
Last year, 22 percent of Charlotte’s shots were 3-pointers. This season nearly 35 percent of the Hornets’ shots were from beyond the arc.
Their 3-point shooting percentage increased 4.4 percentage points to 36.2, and the 873 threes made blasted the previous team record of 591.
Through free agency, the draft and trades, the Hornets got many more shooting threats than what they’ve had in previous seasons.
Jefferson accepted a new role
Jefferson, a former third-team All-NBA center, has become a backup to Cody Zeller now, but lately he has been playing like a starter.
Jefferson got his first start in more than three months earlier this week against Boston and scored 16 points on eight-of-11 shooting. Zeller returned in the regular-season finale but played in limited minutes, and Jefferson carried a Charlotte team playing mostly reserves with 26 points on 73 percent shooting.
Jefferson, who’s dealt with a few injuries and even a suspension this season, said this is the best he has felt in a while.
“I’m feeling like myself,” Jefferson said. “I don’t think I was this healthy any time last year. Maybe in the beginning of last year. I’m feeling good and this is the perfect time to feel this way.”
Jefferson’s post moves and back-to-the-basket game will be tested against Miami center Hassan Whiteside, whose 269 blocks this season were 92 more than the next closest player.
Strong on the defensive glass
For the third consecutive season, the Hornets led the league in defensive rebounding percentage.
Defensive rebounding percentage looks at the number of defensive rebounds available against how many the team actually got. The Hornets were at 79.8 percent.
“It’s huge. If you look at what wins year in and year out, the better teams can defensive rebound,” Clifford said. “The guys have done a great job with it. Regardless of big, small (lineups) or whatever, there are certain things you have to do to win. You can’t turn the ball over, you can’t give up fast-break points, and you can’t give up a lot of second-chance points.”
Charlotte allowed 11.4 second-chance points per game this season, the fifth-lowest total in the league.
Success Without MKG
The former No. 2 overall pick, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist played in just seven games this season. He injured his shoulder in the preseason, had surgery, came back earlier than expected and then tore his labrum again.
Recent history shows the Hornets aren’t good without MKG. In the 2013-14 season, they went 8-12 when he wasn’t on the court. Last season they were 6-21 without him and 27-28 with him.
Winning just 30 percent of their games without MKG in the previous two seasons, it’s a wonder the Hornets had such a great season. It would have been reasonable to doubt a 48-win season when Kidd-Gilchrist went out the first time.
But Charlotte has put together its best season in more than a decade without one of its key pieces.