Scott Fowler

Hornets, Heat about to experience the magic of a Game 7

Game 7.

Every sports fan knows what that phrase signifies – a countdown to a classic.

Three wins apiece. Two evenly matched teams. One game to decide it all.

The Charlotte Hornets and Miami Heat play Game 7 of an extraordinarily intense and entertaining playoff series at 1 p.m. Sunday in Miami on ABC, with the winners advancing to the Eastern Conference semifinals – and the losers cleaning out their lockers.

“It’s do or die,” Hornets star guard Kemba Walker said.

“You have to love it,” Heat star guard Dwyane Wade said. “You have to love what Game 7 is. ... At this point in my career, I play for these moments. I don’t play for regular-season basketball.”

Walker and Wade engaged in a remarkable duel in Game 6 Friday night in Charlotte, where the Hornets (up 3-2 in the best-of-7 series at the time) lost a wonderful opportunity to win their first playoff series since 2002. Back and forth the two men went. Walker scored 14 points in the fourth quarter to will the Hornets back into the game. But Wade hit his first two 3-pointers in calendar year 2016 to finally win it for Miami.

So now here we go.

Game 7.

“The two best words in the English language,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.

Of course, a “do or die” moment in sports is not really that rare. Many sports – college basketball and the NFL playoffs, for instance – play single-elimination playoffs. Lose once and you’re out.

But a Game 7 in some ways is even better, because by the time it finally shows up, the two teams and their fans have threaded themselves through each other’s psyches for two weeks. Familiarity breeds contempt – and respect. When NASCAR totally revamped its own playoff system a few years ago, CEO Brian France said he did it with the intention of “creating more Game 7 moments.”

The Hornets played their first NBA season in 1988, but they have only had one Game 7 in their history. In 2001, the Hornets fielded what was probably their best team. Charlotte advanced to the second round of the NBA playoffs behind Jamal Mashburn and Baron Davis and led that playoff series against Milwaukee, 3-2. But the Hornets then played Game 6 at home and lost – just like Friday night – and then fell to the Bucks again in Milwaukee in their only Game 7 ever.

A deep playoff run?

Hornets owner Michael Jordan’s focus has long been on building a Hornets team that could go deep into the playoffs like his Chicago Bulls used to every year, but that hasn’t happened yet. This Charlotte team has a shot, though.

The winner of Sunday’s Charlotte-Miami game plays the winner of another Game 7 – Indiana-Toronto – in the second round of the playoffs. That conference semifinal series will start Tuesday.

If the Hornets can pull off an upset Sunday in Miami, they will have a fine chance to go further than any Charlotte team has before. In the 16-team NBA playoffs, a team must win four straight best-of-7 series to win the title. No Hornets or Bobcats team has ever gotten past the second round, much less to the Eastern Conference finals where LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers will likely await.

Like the Carolina Panthers, who made a run to the Super Bowl in January, the Hornets are doing this without one of their best players who is out for the season. For the Panthers, it was wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin. For the Hornets, it is defensive stopper Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (and now possibly small forward Nic Batum, who has been nursing a left foot strain for most of the series).

But the Hornets do have Walker, whose national profile keeps rising. He has averaged 25 points per game in the series, slicing through Miami’s defense time and again for acrobatic layups against players a foot taller. Walker has been the Hornet who has best handled the increased contact and intensity every playoff series brings, closely followed by Hornets big man Al Jefferson and fellow guard Jeremy Lin.

Miami, though, has a slew of fine players and most of all has Wade – long considered one of the best closers in basketball. The 13-year veteran has made it to the NBA Finals five times in his career and won three of them. His playoff resume dwarfs that of every Hornet.

Now 34, Wade won a Game 7 in the NBA Finals with Miami in 2013 and is always the player with the ball in clutch moments for the Heat. He gets sick sometimes of the 82-game NBA regular season, but he never gets tired of the playoffs.

“It’s what makes you feel alive,” Wade said. “Whether it’s winning, whether it’s losing, the in-between, it just makes you feel alive. And Game 7 is the best feeling to be a part of.”

A coaching chess match

Spoelstra and Charlotte coach Steve Clifford have engaged in a chess match and a mutual admiration society throughout this series. Both come from the same extended coaching family, and each has made the other’s team uncomfortable. Spoelstra has tried to take away Charlotte’s talent for 3-point shots by pushing his defense way out on the perimeter. The Hornets, knowing Miami prefers to shoot the ball inside, have pulled their defense in and dared the Heat to shoot open jumpers from 22 feet.

The fundamentals that the coaches have instilled in theirteams are apparent. Clifford loves the way Spoelstra has reinvented the Heaton the fly after losing LeBron to free agency in 2014 and Chris Bosh to injury. Spoelstra loves the way Charlotte hardly ever loses the ball on offense.

“Look, they’re not going to turn it over,” Spoelstra said of the Hornets. “We’ve tried everything. We’ve pressured them, we get into them, we try to get into passing lanes, we try to get deflections. They have six months of incredible habits.”

But ultimately, players win and lose games. Wade hadn’t made a 3-pointer since December and was shooting them at a horrendous 16 percent clip for the season. The Hornets want him to shoot outside instead of driving. But then he nailed two three-pointers in the final three minutes Friday in Charlotte, the second one a dagger with 46 seconds left.

Clifford has never been a head coach for a Game 7 and has never won a playoff series as a head coach, either. Spoelstra is not as well-regarded by Heat fans as he is by Clifford; he has never won a playoff series without LeBron on his team.

‘Scratching and clawing’

It would be surprising if Game 7 was a blowout. Although the first three games of Charlotte-Miami weren’t particularly close, Games 4, 5 and 6 have all been decided in the final 60 seconds.

“It’s going to be a battle, just like this whole series,” Walker said. “There’s a reason we’re going to Game 7, and it’s because both teams have been scratching and clawing to get some wins in. We pulled out a really impressive win in Miami the other night and they pulled out one here [in Charlotte] now. That’s how it goes. We just have to lock back in, watch film, learn from our mistakes and just be better. I think we will.”

They will need to be. The home loss in Game 6 will haunt the Hornets this offseason if they don’t latch onto this final chance.

So it is time for a Game 7 – the first one in 15 years for the Charlotte Hornets. Get ready.