It took Charlotte 14 years to win one NBA playoff game.
It took two days to win another.
Charlotte’s 89-85 Game 4 home win over Miami on Monday night before a jacked-up sellout crowd tied this playoff series at 2-2 and guaranteed the Hornets at least one more home playoff game Friday night. It was keyed by point guard Kemba Walker (34 points) and his compatriot Jeremy Lin (21), who drove the ball into the teeth of the Heat defense time and again and escaped with one layup after another.
But it was a third Hornets guard – Courtney Lee – who grabbed a huge offensive rebound in the final five seconds and then made two free throws to seal the win. That pushed owner Michael Jordan into a hugging frenzy in his purple T-shirt on the sidelines and sent the crowd happily into the night while a voice on the loudspeaker screamed: “The box office is open right now! The box office is open right now!”
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Before Friday night’s Game 6 in Charlotte, however, the series returns Wednesday to Miami for Game 5, where the Heat has been unbeatable for more than a month. And if there is a Game 7, it will be played in Miami on Sunday. For the Hornets to actually win this series, for they will have to win at least one game in Miami to do it.
“We have to steal one in Miami,” Walker said.
With Kemba on the Hornets’ side, they have a chance. He was the best player on the court Monday. After Miami had whittled an 18-point Hornets lead down to a single point with 6:07 left in the game, Walker scored Charlotte’s next 11 points.
“That’s what I’m known for, making big plays down the stretch,” Walker said.
Lin jokingly said he needed some on-court rest and that he told Walker to “take us home” in the fourth quarter.
“It’s awesome,” Lin said of Walker’s point spurt. “I just sit there, watch and catch my breath honestly. … I was chilling over there in the corner.”
Walker didn’t make his last shot, when against very sound Miami defense he had to throw up a 28-foot prayer with 5.8 seconds left and Charlotte up, 87-85. That shot hit the front rim. But Lee “came out of nowhere,” as Walker said, to grab an offensive rebound and get fouled while doing so with 4.6 seconds left. Lee’s two free throws then provided the final margin for Charlotte.
This series has taken a sharp right turn compared to where it was Saturday before tipoff. At that point, the Hornets were down 2-0 and also knew that one of their best players in small forward Nic Batum was injured and out. Charlotte won Saturday night’s game, though, putting to rest the tiresome statistic that the last time Charlotte’s NBA franchise had won any sort of playoff game it was 2002. Then the Hornets won again Monday without Batum, getting just enough offense (that’s where Batum’s absence really hurts) and a scrappy defensive performance.
“We have to figure out how to carry this defense on the road,” Hornets coach Steve Clifford said.
With Miami sacrificing just about everything to run Charlotte off the three-point line, the Hornets have found new life by driving the ball straight at the basket. The Hornets were only 3-for-14 from three-point range Monday but outscored a bigger Miami team 44-30 in the paint – with many of those points coming courtesy of forays to the basket by Lin and Walker.
Lin also threw up one three-pointer that banked in from 25 feet – a shot he thought had no chance of going in. He called it an “Angels in the Outfield” moment.
The game was the most significant NBA contest played in Charlotte in at least the past dozen years, but it won’t hold that record for long. When you win in the playoffs, the next game just becomes bigger. Now Friday night’s game in Charlotte – with the Hornets either facing elimination or attempting to knock out the Heat – will be even more important.
In either case, this playoff series is coming back to Charlotte, one way or another. Yes, the box office is open for business. The Hornets are alive again.