The Charlotte Hornets lost a rare and golden opportunity Friday night to close out a playoff series at home, falling to the Miami Heat, 97-90, to set up a deciding Game 7 at 1 p.m. Sunday in Miami.
Disappointed Hornets fans filed out quietly after the Heat matched Charlotte’s road win Wednesday night in Miami behind star guard Dwyane Wade, who took over the last 60 seconds of Game 6 and finally muted an extraordinary performance by the Hornets’ Kemba Walker.
“Now you have the two best words in the English language – Game 7,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said.
If the Hornets lose this playoff series, now tied 3-3, this will be the game they regret the most. This was the chance to beat the Heat while in Charlotte and put an end to the most dramatic playoff series the city of Charlotte has seen in 15 years. It was a missed opportunity of the most important kind, the sort that can haunt a team for years.
Wade and Walker put on a remarkable two-man show, as both men hit huge shots again and again. And while Walker (37 points) hit more of them, Wade (23 points) made the biggest ones with two enormous shots in the last 46 seconds.
“Dwyane feels most alive when the competition is at its highest,” Spoelstra said. “He was brilliant on both ends.”
“He’s one of the great players of our time,” Hornets coach Steve Clifford said of Wade. “A great player, game on the line, and he made the plays.”
It was the third game in a row in this superb series that has been decided in the final minute. Never a good three-point shooter, Wade had not made a trey in four months and was shooting 16 percent behind the line for the season. He had been telling people he had a mental block about shooting them at all.
But Wade knocked one down with three minutes to go in the fourth quarter, and then hit another with 46 seconds left right after Walker had missed a 17-foot jump shot that would have tied the game at 90 with 1:04 to go. After an Al Jefferson layup, the Hornets were again within three points. But Wade rose up for a contested 18-foot turnaround jumper from Wade – and made that one, too. Miami led by five with 19 seconds to go, and the Hornets were done.
Miami led nearly all the way before a crowd of 19,636 – the most people to ever see a Hornets game at Time Warner Cable Arena. The fans included athletic luminaries like Allen Iverson, Julius Peppers, Josh Norman and Jonathan Stewart.
The Hornets now have to duplicate their fantastic effort on Wednesday, when they outscored Miami by eight points in the fourth quarter and won by two on the road. Charlotte will need to play a lot better and more consistently than it did Friday, when the Hornets had a bad defensive first half and never gave Walker enough help on offense in a game Nic Batum had to leave early after re-aggravating his foot injury.
Starter Marvin Williams played 37 minutes and scored zero points, shooting 0-for-7. Starter Courtney Lee, who won the previous two games in the final minute, had two points. Jeremy Lin went 1-for-8 from the field and got called for charging twice on fast breaks that needed to result in points.
The Hornets have only had one previous Game 7 in its history, losing it on the road to Milwaukee in 2001. Clifford was already looking forward late Friday night, noting that Charlotte has won two of the past four times it has played the Heat in Miami.
“We’ve got another game to prepare for,” Clifford said.
And this one -- after Miami and Charlotte tied their regular-season series 2-2 and have now tied this playoff series 3-3 – will be for it all.