If this is a sign of what’s to come in this playoff series, then maybe the Miami Heat and Charlotte Hornets weren’t as even as their regular season records or season series suggested.
Or, maybe, Miami was just white hot for a night.
Either way, the Heat made a triumphant return to the playoffs Sunday night after missing the postseason last year, jumping all over the Hornets early and pounding them from start to the finish in a 123-91 Game 1 victory at AmericanAirlines Arena.
The 123 points set a franchise playoff record — and helped bury the regular season-ending loss to the Celtics in which the Heat blew a 26-point lead in the second half.
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“I think the Boston game really helped us a lot,” said Hassan Whiteside, who had 21 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks in 26 minutes in his playoff debut. “We came in here [at halftime] and we said we’re going to keep our energy going and if they score a couple times we’re going to see what we’re doing wrong and fix it.”
The Heat never had to fix much.
By the time the fourth quarter rolled around, the starters were out and laughing on the bench. The 32-point margin of victory tied for the fourth-largest in Heat playoff history.
Luol Deng, who celebrated his 31st birthday on Saturday and was the first free-agent Pat Riley signed after LeBron James returned to Cleveland, led the way.
He made 11 of his 13 shots, matched a career playoff-high with four three-pointers and scored 31 points — the most by a player in a Heat playoff debut.
For a player who has never been a focus of the Heat’s offense — just one of the guys who scores his points as they come — it was a special night.
“I had a wide open three in the corner [in the fourth], but if I made it would have been [more] than 31 [points] and I just turned 31. So I missed it on purpose,” Deng joked afterward.
“Honestly, I had no idea what my career high was. I just played the game. I really didn’t really realize I had 30 until we had a timeout and I think Chris Bosh said it. I just went with the flow of the game and made the right play every time.”
Whiteside, playing in his first playoff game along with rookies Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson, hardly disappointed.
Between Whiteside and Amar’e Stoudemire, the Heat held Hornets center Al Jefferson to 13 points in 24 minutes off the bench.
Jefferson, a thorn in the Heat’s side in the past, didn’t make his first field goal until there was 1:32 left in the third quarter.
Nicolas Batum (24 points) and Kemba Walker (19 points, one assist) led Charlotte’s offense.
But the Hornets, one of the best three-point shooting teams in the league, finished 6 of 17 from beyond the arc and never got into a flow. Charlotte shot 43.1 percent for the game.
“We just got manhandled,” Hornets coach Steve Clifford said. “If Luol Deng and and Hassan Whiteside are going to combine for those kind of numbers, then it will be hard for us to win.
“I was disappointed in our defense. They were really good, and we were not anywhere near where we needed to be. A lot of it was them. Not to take anything away, but we played defensively a terrible game. We were disorganized and not intense. It’s not like we have to make a lot of adjustments. We just have to play better.”
Goran Dragic didn’t shoot exceptionally well (2 of 8) in his first career playoff start, but finished with nine points and 10 assists in 33 minutes.
Dwyane Wade, playing in his franchise-record 153rd career playoff game, scored 16 points on 8-of-16 shooting in 26 easy minutes.
Miami matched a franchise playoff-record with 41 first-quarter points and led by 19 after the opening period. Deng scored 14 points in the opening quarter and Whiteside had 10. They combined to make all nine of their shots.
It only got worse for the Hornets from there.
On a roll
Miami opened the second half with a 7-0 run, extending its 67-50 halftime lead to 24 points. The lead eventually expanded to 34 in the fourth quarter.
With about four minutes left, coach Erik Spoelstra emptied his bench. Dorell Wright, playing in his first game since signing with Miami the final week of the regular season, scored the Heat’s final eight points. He made a pair of long-distance threes.
About the only thing that went right for Charlotte was free-throw shooting. The Hornets got to the free-throw line a ton.
They shot 28 free throws in the first half — the most by a Heat opponent ever — and made 29 of 37 for the game.
“I expect Game 2, 3 and 4 to be a little tougher,” Whiteside said. “Guys are going to know each other’s … styles a little more and just try to expose each other’s weaknesses. I’m looking forward to it.”