If the playoffs are about who shows up with ice in their veins then Courtney Lee gets the prize for driving a stake through the dreams of the Miami Heat, who have showed little ability to create offense within the construct of defensive pressure. The complexity of this series was never more blatant then when the Heat had an opportunity to score and were suffocated by Charlotte’s wings on the perimeter.
A week ago, non-drunk folk thought the Heat had a shot of getting to the Eastern Conference Finals and matching up with LeBron James and, perhaps, getting a piece of revenge for LeBron jilting them two summers ago. But they had to get through Charlotte first, a gritty team without glamour players other than Linsanity and his fourth resurrection, which by the way, is going pretty well.
Charlotte has never mattered much in NBA circles. Only when Michael Jordan purchased them in 2010 did they spark national interest. Once upon a time, the Hornets had Alonzo Mourning. They also had Baron Davis who won a playoff game for them by hitting a ridiculous three from near half-court as time expired. Dell Curry consistently drained impossible threes for Charlotte before his son was lionized as greatest. And Kobe Bryant was drafted and then Charlotte traded him. That’s the Charlotte history of highlights and lowlights. But what they are on the cusp of now is putting their past miscues in some long forgotten treatise about how to be a mediocre team. They are three-quarters of the way there, of beating the Miami Heat. Of going somewhere significant.
Led by Kemba Walker who had himself some season, the Hornets collected players like kids collect rocks down by the river. Other teams stars like Nic Batum and Courtney Lee are their backbone. The idea that the Hornets, with a playoff road record of 8-25, had a shot at putting the Heat in jeopardy and making them feel enough pressure to question themselves, even after the unthinkable happened on a Wednesday night, made the collective shock on the faces leaving the arena look like a whole bunch of people just got sick.
The Heat feel pressure they are not used to, not in the first round of a series, facing an organization that doesn’t win series. They trail the gutty little Hornets 3-2 and face an elimination game Friday in Charlotte, and if they lose there will be more questions then answers. The easy one is: how did this happen?
For starters, the Heat lost two straight games before tonight’s game 5 in Miami which is something of an anomaly in recent times. The Heat hadn’t lost three playoff games in a row since before LeBron hooked his train to the Heat bandwagon and they became one of the most thrilling, captivating, envious, hated, defiled cultural figure groups in recent memory.
But for those paying attention to how things are today, a red flag kept flapping and waving in games 3 and 4 when the Heat were in North Carolina and looked helpless. The showed little ability to stay in front of Lin and Walker. The Heat veterans looked like the age on them was weighing them down. Having to depend on Wade to pull games out isn’t as productive a strategy as it used to be considering his years in the league. And one other thing about the Heat. Hassan Whiteside goes through lulls in games where he looks like he just rolled out of bed and forgot he is…um…the biggest dude on the floor.
And yet, even as all that was true, the Heat’s inconsistencies were supposed to be camouflaged because they were back in their safe space, at home, which created illusions of grandeur.
They started the game 14-6. But the Hornets ran off 14 straight points because of three point shooting, built a double-digit lead, gained confidence, had some swag, and the Heat looked for Wade to rescue them, which he did. A 17-7 run was all on Wade and Miami climbed back into the game because Wade can still be brilliant and dunk and finger roll and lay it in and numb you with his midrange. He suddenly tightened the game so Charlotte only had a two point half time lead and it made everyone remember Wade is still a tough competitor.
No one pegged Courtney Lee to be the star in this game, particularly since he had been dreadful shooting the ball and he is Courtney Lee, a quality NBA player but never known to be a closer. In the 2009 NBA Finals, he blew a layup to give the Magic the lead and an improbable Game 1 win.
On a breakaway Lee dunk in Miami, Wade chased him down, and depending on your perspective, Wade fouled him, or, at the very least, it should have been a goal tending call. Or, so the Hornets believed. The dunk missed. It wasn’t ruled goal tending. Some twenty seconds later, Lee made the biggest offensive rebound and biggest shot of his postseason career.
“I couldn’t make a shot. But the biggest one went in.” (Courtney Lee)
The Heat had one more crack at it but a foul wasn’t called with 2.6 seconds left. A lot of Heat complaining about it ensued, but it was one of those late in the game not going to call it because your arm is still in its socket.
“It is never decided by those plays but my vantage point Dwyane certainly looked like he got fouled. ” (Erik Spoelstra).
The Heat’s offense was pretty underwhelming and credit the Hornets defense. In the regular season, Charlotte was 9th in points allowed and 12th in field goal percentage. After Lee was denied a goal tend by Wade, the Hornets smothered the perimeter and all the Heat could manage was a 30-foot airball shot. That led to Lee’s open three pointer and the ball game, for all intents and purposes.
This is a strange place for the Heat to be, this trailing in the series geography where they may be on vacation come Friday. It’s a peculiar world where Dwyane Wade can’t deliver victories by himself and can’t get a call. He had 25 points, 58% shooting, and the Heat still lost. He was visibly angry post game and said he wouldn’t sleep, thinking about it. Luol Deng and Goran Dragic were a combined 9-27, 30%.
Charlotte shouldn’t get all cocky about 3-2 though, and start scanning the Pacers-Raptors box score. The last time it happened like this for Charlotte, way back in 2001 against Milwaukee in the semi-finals, they lost. So it’s not over for the Heat but the pressure is a thousand pounds of bricks all over their neck with one game to win in North Carolina.
photo via llananba