Charlotte Hornets

NBA playoffs: Charlotte Hornets aren’t just happy to be here

Charlotte Hornets head coach Steve Clifford instructs his team from the sidelines during Wednesday night's win over Orlando.
Charlotte Hornets head coach Steve Clifford instructs his team from the sidelines during Wednesday night's win over Orlando. rlahser@charlotteobserver.com

The last time any NBA team in Charlotte won a playoff game, George W. Bush was just more than a year into his first presidential term.

Somehow it’s been that long. A move, new team, name change and five coaches later, the Hornets now have another chance to get that elusive playoff victory.

But it’ll be more than that in the next week or so for Charlotte. Hornets coach Steve Clifford knows that just because Charlotte has gotten swept in its past two playoff appearances doesn’t mean a single game victory is enough.

“It’s been fun, and I think we’ve become more relevant in these three years in this league,” Clifford said of his time at the helm, “but ultimately, if we really want to do something of significance, you’ve got to win a playoff series or two.”

Winning two series may be asking too much of these Hornets this year, but one series is not. Sixth-seeded Charlotte went 2-2 against the Heat in the regular season and could reasonably stretch this series to seven games. And the victors would likely face the Raptors while avoiding the Cavaliers in the second round.

Clifford and the Hornets, who beat Orlando 117-103 Wednesday, know the Heat. Sure, Charlotte is 4-12 against Miami in the past four seasons, but that includes two winless seasons against a LeBron James-led Heat.

Under the guidance of Clifford and without James in Miami, the Hornets are a more respectable 4-4 against the Heat.

You’ll recall the last time Charlotte was in the playoffs. That iteration of Charlotte pro basketball was the Bobcats, and in Clifford’s first year as coach they were swept by the Heat.

“A lot of guys on that team, it was their first time being in the playoffs and playing a big role,” said Al Jefferson, who was playing in his first season with the Hornets and injured his foot early in the series. “We were playing against the team going to the Finals and had been three years prior and won two out of three. It was a good experience for us.

“I don’t think, personally, that we could have beaten them, but I really think we could have won a couple of games if the injuries and stuff didn’t happen. Now we’re back and it’s a totally different team in Miami and totally different team in us.”

Clifford spent about a day and a half on the Celtics earlier this week before the Hornets won 114-100 in Boston. When he got back to town, he worked on preparing for both the Heat and Hawks.

But really, the coaching staff has been preparing for all three teams since the past couple of weeks when it became clear that, no matter where in that logjam of an Eastern Conference the Hornets finished, they’d face one of those squads.

After the game, Clifford may have peeked to see the Warriors vie for their 73rd win or see the final game for Kobe Bryant, whom Clifford coached in Los Angeles for a season. But he got to work in earnest on the Heat.

The Charlotte Hornets coaching staff has been preparing for all three teams - Heat, Celtics and Hawks - for the past couple of weeks.

He wants to see how Miami coach Erik Spoelstra has adapted to his personnel with Chris Bosh out with blood clot issues. The pick-and-roll defense has changed, and the Heat has become far more protective of the paint (with the help of former Gastonia resident Hassan Whiteside).

Hornets guard Kemba Walker has seen Miami in the playoffs before, too, and he knows how the game will become more intense against the likes of Dwyane Wade.

But this isn’t the 2014 postseason. The Hornets shouldn’t – and aren’t – just happy to be here.

Getting a couple of wins won’t be the kind of moral victory it would have been two years ago. This time they need to get a series victory.

“Most definitely,” Jefferson said. “We’re going in to win it. And I’m pretty sure they’re going in to win it, too. It’s going to be a great series with two good teams.”

 
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