Scott Fowler

Charlotte Hornets could not have asked for a better playoff matchup than the Heat

Charlotte Hornets guard Kemba Walker drives the ball to the basket against Miami Heat's Hassan Whiteside during a December game. The Heat and Hornets split their regular-season series, 2-2.
Charlotte Hornets guard Kemba Walker drives the ball to the basket against Miami Heat's Hassan Whiteside during a December game. The Heat and Hornets split their regular-season series, 2-2. rlahser@charlotteobserver.com

Playing Miami in the first round of the NBA playoffs was the worst possible postseason draw for Charlotte in 2014.

But playing Miami in the very same round two years later is the best possible scenario for these Hornets.

The Hornets have been a somewhat unlucky team for much of their recent history – losing the Anthony Davis draft lottery being a prime example. But they absolutely could not have gotten a better last night out of the regular season on Wednesday.

By virtue of the way everything shook out, Charlotte not only avoided the dreaded “LeBron Bracket” of the playoffs but will also play a Miami team that is technically a No. 3 seed compared to Charlotte’s No. 6 but in reality is pretty much a wash in talent. Miami has exactly the same overall record (48-34) this season. The teams tied 2-2 in the head-to-head series this year.

The series opens Sunday at 5:30 p.m. in Miami on TNT. The winner of the best-of-7 series will play the winner of Toronto and Indiana the second round; No. 1 seed LeBron and Cleveland get to pound their way through the other side of the Eastern Conference.

Miami and Charlotte are both remarkably different from two seasons ago. LeBron James pretty much could and did beat the Hornets by himself then, averaging 30 points, eight rebounds and six assists in Miami’s 4-0 playoff sweep over Charlotte. Now LeBron has left South Beach. Chris Bosh is still out with blood clot issues. Only Dwyane Wade of the Heat’s original “Big Three” remains.

And although D-Wade can never be overlooked and has a new and talented cast around him, this Heat team is nowhere near the colossus it was a couple of years ago when it made the NBA Finals for four straight seasons and won two.

“We had no chance against that Miami team in 2014,” Charlotte point guard Kemba Walker said. “None.”

‘Running on nails’

Any sliver of hope the then-Bobcats had in that No. 7 vs. No. 2 playoff series was stamped out in the first quarter of the very first playoff game, when Al Jefferson injured his foot. Jefferson doggedly played through that injury for the first three games before sitting out Game 4, but he said all the while it felt like he was “running on nails.”

Walker was Charlotte’s top scorer in that series, even though the Heat basically blitzed him with a double-team every time he got the ball and dared anyone else to score. Jefferson was the Hornets’ No. 2 scorer in that series. Both remain in Charlotte and are major contributors.

But scorers number 3-9 in that series for the Hornets? Six of them are gone. The seventh, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, won’t play because of injury. The Hornets – long dubious masters of the “churn” – have turned over about 70 percent of the roster in the past two years. The Hornets remain at least one player short of seriously contending for an NBA championship. But the overall effect has been for the better.

“We have a lot better team,” said Hornets coach Steve Clifford, whose team will look for Charlotte’s first playoff win of the 21st century Sunday. “Two years ago our guys did a great job, but we didn’t have nearly the talent level or depth we have now.”

Remade with sharpshooters

The Hornets have remade themselves into a team of 3-point sharpshooters, which allows Walker more space to operate when he drives and keeps double-teams away from Jefferson.

Hornets fans understandably fret that Nic Batum isn’t going into the series healthy – he has an ankle issue, and the worry is that he will be diminished much like Jefferson was in that 2014 series. Clifford said before the playoff draw was announced that he hoped the Hornets began Sunday instead of Saturday mainly so Batum would get an extra day of rest.

That’s the way it happened – another small break for Charlotte – and Batum told me there’s no way he will miss Game 1. How effective he will be is another question – and the Hornets must have Batum at a high level to win the series.

Said Marvin Williams of Charlotte’s more recent matchups with Miami: “We’ve had some good battles. They got us a couple of times. We got them a couple of times. They obviously have a ton of playoff experience. But if we first and foremost defend, we can succeed.”

Charlotte will mostly use Courtney Lee on Wade, with Batum on Joe Johnson and both Cody Zeller and Jefferson facing Gastonia’s Hassan Whiteside at times. All of it will be difficult, but none of it will be impossible. You don’t ever get to play anyone easy in the playoffs, but the Hornets really couldn’t have asked for a better matchup. Now they just have to figure out how to win it.

No. 6 Hornets vs. No. 3 Heat schedule

▪  Game 1: Sunday, Charlotte at Miami, 5:30 p.m, TNT

▪  Game 2: Wednesday, Charlotte at Miami, 7 p.m., NBA TV

▪  Game 3: Saturday, April 23, Miami at Charlotte. 5:30 p.m. TNT

▪  Game 4: Monday, April 25, Miami at Charlotte, TBD

▪  Game 5*: Wednesday, April 27, Charlotte at Miami, TBD

▪  Game 6*: Friday, April 29, Miami at Charlotte, TBD

▪  Game 7*: Sunday, May 1, Charlotte at Miami, TBD

*– if necessary

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