Nearly two hours before tip-off Wednesday Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford divulged what it would take for his franchise to end a 16-game regular-season losing streak to the Miami Heat.
If Hornets center Al Jefferson could get enough low-post touches to force the Heat out of their preferred small-ball lineup, then the door would open.
That’s precisely what happened. Jefferson had his best night of the season with 28 points and 10 rebounds and the Hornets got past the Heat 96-89.
The Hornets got a lot of post-game questions about the relevance of beating the Heat for the first time since March of 2010. They generally deflected those questions since most of them weren’t around for all 16 losses and because the Heat is obviously a different team following LeBron James’ departure for Cleveland.
The relief was ending a three-game losing streak this season and looking much more like a team than Tuesday when – to use Jefferson’s words – they “just quit” against the New Orleans Pelicans.
“We made a game plan and we stuck to it. We made plays for each other. Everyone was pretty aggressive,” said point guard Kemba Walker (18 points), whose fourth-quarter 3-pointer and four free throws were big in holding off a late Heat charge. “We played through Al and whenever someone had the opportunity to make plays, we made them.”
The trick was punishing the Heat for playing Chris Bosh (12 points) at center and Shawne Williams at power forward. That combination makes the Heat small inside but highly skilled, a combination that is hard for the Hornets to counter.
“When we play them that’s going to be the game: What they have to do to take Al out of his game and what they can do small, because then they’re so skilled,” Clifford said.
Jefferson noted that he and Bosh started out as power forwards and are now centers. The difference, Jefferson said, is Bosh is “a guard playing (center)” because he’s such a good outside shooter.
Jefferson dislikes having to chase Bosh all around the perimeter, so scoring inside efficiently (Jefferson shot 13-of-25 from the field Wednesday) forces the Heat to try something more conventional, like playing Justin Hamilton at center and Bosh at power forward.
“We’ve got to make him guard me, too, to get them out of what they want to do,” Jefferson described. “I felt like today against all their guys I had an advantage.”
Obviously it’s been a while since anyone from this franchise could see an advantage in playing the Heat. The whole streak is actually 20 games if you count the playoff sweep at the end of last season.
The Heat is less without James, but Miami still won three of its first four games. Shooting guard Dwyane Wade looks rejuvenated after playing much of last season on a bad knee. Wade finished with 25 points off 9-of-18 shooting.
The Hornets again played without small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (sore ribs and hip). The way the Hornets started the season, trailing by 14 or more points in each of their first four games, they were relieved to beat anyone anywhere.
“We have a newness about us and we haven’t found our togetherness yet,” Clifford concluded. “Tonight we stuck together, we fought hard and we made enough plays to get through at the end.”
HORNETS 96, HEAT 89
Percentages: FG .390, FT .806. Three-Point Goals: 4-22, .182 (S.Williams 3-4, Bosh 1-6, Ennis 0-1, Hamilton 0-1, Chalmers 0-2, Cole 0-2, Deng 0-2, Napier 0-2, Wade 0-2). Team Rebounds: 8. Team Turnovers: 8 (10 PTS). Blocked Shots: 4 (S.Williams 3, Wade). Turnovers: 8 (Wade 3, Bosh 2, Chalmers 2, McRoberts). Steals: 6 (Deng 2, Bosh, Chalmers, Napier, Wade).
Percentages: FG .427, FT .724. Three-Point Goals: 5-18, .278 (Walker 2-2, Hairston 2-8, Neal 1-3, Henderson 0-1, Stephenson 0-1, M.Williams 0-1, Roberts 0-2). Team Rebounds: 15. Team Turnovers: 13 (11 PTS). Blocked Shots: 9 (Hairston 3, Jefferson 3, Maxiell, Stephenson, Zeller). Turnovers: 12 (Stephenson 3, M.Williams 3, Neal 2, Zeller 2, Jefferson, Walker). Steals: 4 (Walker 2, Henderson, Maxiell). Flagrant Fouls: Stephenson, 8:24 fourth.
Att.—15,874 (19,077). T—2:24.
Officials—Mike Callahan, Brent Barnaky, David Jones.