The most important NBA basketball home game in Charlotte since the “Classic Hornets” era will be played Monday night.
Game 4 of the Miami-Charlotte playoff series has serious consequences. Since the NBA returned to the Queen City in 2004, this ranks as the most significant game that Charlotte has ever played.
In the last dozen years, the Bobcats/Hornets have never been in a home playoff game with a chance to tie a postseason series. By the time the playoffs have gotten to Charlotte, the home team has always been down either 2-0 or 3-0, clinging to a rapidly fraying rope.
Not this time. After Charlotte’s crisp 96-80 win in Game 3 before a rowdy home crowd Saturday night, the Hornets enter Monday night with a real chance to tie this best-of-7 series at 2-2. “We want to win,” Hornets point guard Kemba Walker said Sunday. “I don’t know anything about losing. ... We’re not even thinking about losing, honestly. We want to go back to Miami 2-2.”
A victory by the Heat Monday night would push them into nearly unbeatable territory.
In NBA history, a team with a 3-1 lead in the playoffs that also gets to play the fifth game at home ultimately wins that series 98.7 percent of the time (151 out of 153). That’s the sunny spot where the Heat would find themselves with a Monday win, because Game 5 is Wednesday in Miami.
But if it’s 2-2, suddenly this best-of-7 series will be shortened to a best-of-3, and anything can happen.
“This game Monday is just as important as Saturday night,” Hornets center Al Jefferson said. “We didn’t want to go down 3-0, because that’s impossible. We have seen teams come back from down 3-1, but you still don’t want to do it. The way we played Saturday has to carry on. We were just more aggressive. The reasons we lost Game 1 and 2, we didn’t do the things that we were good at all season long, and we got back to that Saturday night.”
On Saturday, Charlotte compensated well for the absence of standout small forward Nic Batum with a bigger lineup, defensive intensity and a great focus on taking care of the ball on offense. The Hornets had only four turnovers the entire game, and one was a purposeful shot-clock violation in the final two seconds.
Rookie Frank Kaminsky scored 13 of his 15 points in the decisive third quarter, looking more like “College Frank,” as Jefferson termed it Sunday. But, as Kaminsky cautioned, it was just one game.
“If we want to win this series,” Kaminsky said Sunday, “we’ll have to play like that every minute of all the rest of the games.”
My guess is that Batum (strained left foot) won’t be back in uniform Monday night. Batum is begging to play and getting five hours of treatment a day, but Hornets coach Steve Clifford did not sound optimistic Sunday.
So the Hornets mostly likely will have to do it without one of their three best players once again. Maybe Game 5 in Miami – now scheduled for an 8 p.m. Wednesday start – will give Batum a slightly better chance at playing.
The Hornets will pull out the playoff stops again, giving everyone in attendance a free “Enter the Swarm” T-shirt (purple or teal this time) and having Edwin McCain (“I’ll Be”) sing the national anthem.
But after the song, and in front of those 19,000 T-shirted fans, the Hornets will have to come up with something big again. Game 4 is Charlotte’s shot.
Win it, and Monday night will feel like a wedding – joyous, buoyant, full of hope and possibility.
Lose it, and Game 5 may feel like a funeral.