Biggest victory since the NBA returned to Charlotte in 2004.
In fact, I’m not sure what other win since the Bobcats’ inception could compare to Thursday’s 109-106 road victory against the Miami Heat.
This is a place that had been brutal for the Hornets – 12 consecutive losses at American Airlines Arena.
Now, granted, a lot of that misery was inflicted by LeBron James, who left the Heat for the Cleveland Cavaliers two seasons ago. But this felt like a signature victory, with big stakes and the Hornets playing the second game of a back-to-back on the road.
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The Hornets are now tied with the Boston Celtics and Heat at 39-29, a half-game behind the third-place Atlanta Hawks. The Hornets did what they set out to do Thursday, adding to the muddle that is the middle of the Eastern Conference standings.
The Hornets now have a real chance of finishing the season in the 4-5 playoff series and maybe a first-round victory. They showed the Heat they could stick with them and denied the Heat what would have been a tiebreaker-clinching victory (the season series ends tied at 2-2).
This game had playoff-like intensity. Heat star Dwyane Wade got a decent look at the basket on what would have been the 3-pointer to send this game to overtime. He missed and the tension burst with the final buzzer.
There was plenty of tension. Marvin Williams, a poised veteran of 10 NBA seasons, showed as much when he missed two free throws late while trying to protect the lead.
Coach Steve Clifford inserted guard Jeremy Lin in the last minute, after Lin had played just six second-half minutes. Lin showed great poise in making four consecutive free throws to avoid relinquishing the lead.
So much had to happen to bring this one home. Kemba Walker’s 13 second-quarter points brought the Hornets back from a deficit that reached 15 points. They actually led by two at halftime.
Then the Hornets decided center Cody Zeller’s left knee was too sore to play him in the second half. That meant starting Al Jefferson and inserting Tyler Hansbrough into the rotation.
Jefferson played great, finishing with 21 points (off 10-of-16 shooting) and 10 rebounds. Jefferson was the ideal counter-measure to Heat shotblocker Hassan Whiteside, who grew up in Gastonia.
Whiteside is all about explosion. Jefferson is all about guile. Jefferson used moves on Whiteside he invented when Whiteside was a middle-schooler.
Hansbrough, a little used reserve, played solid defense and mistake-free offense. The “mistake-free” part is what Clifford liked best. One of the things he admires about reserves like Hansbrough and Troy Daniels is they’ve stayed focused and ready whether they do or don’t play.
The topper in all this was small forward Nic Batum, who missed six of his first seven shots. Batum has done this long enough not to be psyched out by a bad start. In the second half he scored 17 points on 6-of-11 shooting and added three assists and two rebounds. After committing three turnovers in the first half, he had none after halftime.
It’s no fluke they’re now 10 games above .500. They’re real, they’re dangerous and they’re peaking at just the right time.
Playoff Chase in the East
Note: d denotes division leaders