The Charlotte Hornets finally won a playoff game Saturday night, and when they did you could almost feel the weight of a 14-year losing streak floating away into the rafters.
Before Saturday night’s 96-80 home win over Miami in Game 3 of this first-round playoff series, the Hornets last won a playoff game in May 2002. Paul Silas was Charlotte’s coach then, Baron Davis was the Hornets’ star point guard and Kemba Walker had just celebrated his 12th birthday.
Since then the Charlotte NBA franchise, by any name, has rarely made the playoffs. And when it did, it had lost 12 playoff games in a row – one short of the NBA record. That included two decisive road losses in the first two games of this first-round series against the Miami Heat.
But the Hornets – even without standout small forward Nic Batum – played hard and well Saturday night to cut Miami’s lead in this best-of-7 series to 2-1 and turn Game 4 Monday night in Charlotte into something very meaningful.
Rookie Frank Kaminsky drew the biggest cheers Saturday. He started and emerged from the shell he had played timidly inside during the first two games to score 13 of his 15 points in the third quarter, when Charlotte ran off and left Miami with an 18-0 burst that had the home arena swaying.
The Hornets played with a desperate urgency, and the mood among the sellout crowd of 19,604 swung between jittery early to jubilant late. The Hornets received a standing ovation at the end of the first quarter – for leading by a single point! A nice defensive stand on one possession and the subsequent shot-clock violation against Miami in the second quarter received another standing O.
At halftime, with Charlotte up by five, Hornets owner Michael Jordan was so jacked up as his players left the court that he hit every single one of them in the chest as they went by – and he hit them pretty hard, too.
Hornets coach Steve Clifford made a successful chess move before the game by compensating for Batum’s absence and the Heat’s size by starting an old-school big lineup of Al Jefferson, Kaminsky and Marvin Williams across the front line. Kaminsky had a slow start, as Luol Deng hit four straight 3-pointers over him in the first quarter. But the lineup did seem to help negate Hassan Whiteside on the inside. Jeremy Lin kept Charlotte going in the first half with 13 points off the bench.
Then came the decisive third quarter. It was obvious by this point that Miami had finally cooled off. After shooting a shade over 57 percent in the first two games, Miami shot only 34.2 percent Saturday. Charlotte played better defense, but the Heat also just plain missed some wide-open looks that went in every time in Florida. It looked like the Heat had forgotten to ship its mojo on the team plane from Miami.
And for one quarter, Kaminsky was everything a Hornets fan could dream of – time and again driving the ball to the rim and finishing over and around anyone in his way. Frank the Tank’s emergence was startling and badly needed, and it fueled an 18-0 Hornets run in that third quarter. “Kaminsky gave them a big boost,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.
It was only one game, yes. Miami still leads the series, 2-1, and still has to be favored to win it in a reasonable fan’s mind.
But two things are now happily apparent to Hornets fans that they didn’t know Saturday morning. Their team is no longer in danger of being swept, and it’s still very much in this thing. Monday is going to be fun.