Hey, did you hear the one about the Charlotte Hornets?
How they weren’t supposed to make the playoffs at all? How after they did make the playoffs, they were left for dead after losing the first two games to Miami by 32 and 12 points?
Those same Hornets have now won three straight games against the Heat and lead a thrilling best-of-7 playoff series 3-2. Charlotte could clinch the series in Game 6 at 8 p.m. Friday at Time Warner Cable Arena.
The Hornets have been wanting to get their buzz back for years. Now it has actually arrived. Everywhere you went in Charlotte Thursday, people were talking about the Hornets’ 90-88 win on the road at Miami.
To keep that buzz from flitting away again, though, Charlotte has to win one more game against the Heat to advance to the second round of the NBA playoffs. And to do that, they need to get some more surprisingly good performances from players like Courtney Lee – who said part of the reason he played so well Wednesday was the unusual pre-game combination of a Bible study and a massage.
The last time Charlotte won a playoff series was 2002, when the Hornets defeated Orlando in the first round of the postseason before losing to New Jersey in the second.
These Hornets had zero all-stars in the NBA’s big showcase in February. You could argue that point guard Kemba Walker deserved to go, but he wasn’t selected. No one else was really that close. The Hornets are cobbled together, a mixture of relatively unknown players. Charlotte’s NBA franchise hadn’t even won a playoff game since 2002 until last week.
Few NBA players are more unknown than the Hornets’ Courtney Lee, who has made the biggest plays of both Games 4 and 5 to seal close wins over Miami. Lee is a journeyman guard who went to Western Kentucky and who has played for six NBA teams in eight years – a player who specializes in “3 and D.” That stands for 3-pointers and defense, which are Lee’s specialties. Charlotte traded for him in mid-February, acquiring him from Memphis for spare parts, so he has been with the team less than three months.
Lee was quickly pushed into a starting role, however, and during this series his primary responsibility has been to guard Miami superstar Dwyane Wade. “My job is to make it as tough as possible for him,” Lee said. Wade is so good that Lee did a nice job on defense Wednesday night and Wade still scored 25 points.
Lee, though, then had what he described as a “rollercoaster” final minute of the game and ended up winning it for Charlotte.
The final minute Wednesday
First, with Charlotte down 88-87, he missed a seemingly wide-open layup which he believed should have been called goaltending on Wade. It was not. Miami missed a shot, and then the Hornets got the ball to Walker, their best player with 30 seconds left.
But Walker was having a rare off night and misfired for the 14th time in 18 shots. Lee, though, sprinted from the right baseline, grabbed the offensive rebound and passed it to Jeremy Lin.
At that point, you would figure someone – anyone – would probably shoot other than Lee. He is not a scorer and had gone 1-for-8 shooting so far in the game, including the blown layup.
Lin, though, passed it right back. “I was wide open,” Lee said, “and I just let it fly. If I had to draw it up, I’ll take 1-for-8 (shooting) before I knock down a big shot any day.”
Lee was 2-for-9 shooting Wednesday night -- 2-for-2 from three-point range and 0-for-7 from two-point range.
Lee’s shot went in and the Hornets suddenly led, 90-88. Miami had the ball one last time. First, Walker partially blocked a shot. Wade got the rebound and tried to score against a double team. Lee got a piece of the ball, and both Lee and Cody Zeller made some contact with Wade, but no foul was called and Charlotte won.
The “no foul” call infuriated Miami’s coach, Heat fans and Wade’s wife, the actress Gabrielle Union, who went on a Twitter rant. Union wrote of the officials: “They need to get fined. Period. Crappy officiating deserves a FINE and suspension. Not after the fact ‘oh well.’ ”
Accusations of ‘flopping’
Charlotte hasn’t been around a good, multi-layered playoff series in so long that lots of us have forgotten how it feels. When teams play each other over and over, familiarity breeds contempt. Miami center Hassan Whiteside and Charlotte coach Steve Clifford have both criticized the other team for exaggerating contact to draw fouls, popularly known as “flopping.”
Now comes Game 6 at home in Charlotte in front of what will surely be another sellout crowd. If Miami wins, the series heads back to Miami Sunday for a deciding Game 7.
If Lee has his way, though, the Hornets have already made their last trip to Miami. Lee also clinched Game 4 by slicing in for another offensive rebound with 4.6 seconds left, getting fouled and making two free throws to seal an 89-85 win.
How is Lee getting all these clutch rebounds?
“Aww, the ball is bouncing straight to him,” teased teammate Marvin Williams.
“When the clock is ticking and it’s coming down to the end, you’ve got to try to make a play,” Lee said. “I was just being aggressive.”
Now comes Game 6 Friday. I wrote earlier this week, right before Game 4, that it would be the biggest game the Hornets have played at home in at least a dozen years. Four days later, Game 6 will top it in terms of significance.
The Hornets finally have our attention.
Now can they hold it?
Hornets vs. Heat
Hornets lead series 3-2
Heat 123, Hornets 91
Heat 115, Hornets 103
Hornets 96, Heat 80
Hornets 89, Heat 85
Hornets 90, Heat 88
at Charlotte, 8
at Miami, TBD
* if necessary