After dismal performances in two opening losses, the Charlotte Hornets knew they needed to regroup quickly in their first-round Eastern Conference playoff series against the Miami Heat.
The Hornets did precisely that on Saturday, and the result was a 96-80 Game 3 victory that puts them in position to even the best-of-seven series in Game 4 on Monday.
The Hornets went on an 18-0 run midway through the third quarter, holding the Heat scoreless for a span of 6:37, and then they went on to lead by as many as 24 in the fourth.
It was a complete reversal from the Heat’s 106-80 win in Game 1 and a 115-103 win in Game 2, both in Miami.
“Our intensity, our defense, our communication was so much better,” Hornets coach Steve Clifford said. “So it’s a good win and if we can come back and play better in some areas Monday night, it’ll give us a chance to tie the series.”
The Hornets clearly benefitted from a return home to Time Warner Cable Arena, where they went 30-11 during the regular season.
They were crisp offensively, committing only four turnovers, and they came through with a brilliant defensive effort in limiting the Heat to 34.2 percent shooting from the field.
“The thing tonight was, we were more intense, we were more disciplined, and our defense was a ton better,” Clifford said. “I mean, we had two of our five worst deflection games all season in Miami and that all changed tonight. We played a lot harder. We played a lot smarter. We were a lot more organised.”
Jeremy Lin led a balanced attack with 18 points, as six players scored in double figures. The Hornets also got 17 points from Kemba Walker, 15 points from Frank Kaminsky, 12 points from Cody Zeller, 12 points and 14 rebounds from Marvin Williams, and 10 points from Al Jefferson.
Kaminsky and Jefferson found themselves in the starting lineup as Clifford went with a starting combination that he had not used any time during the regular season.
The score was 53-53 midway through the third quarter when the Hornets went on their 18-0 run for a 71-53 lead. The 7-foot Kaminsky, often finding himself matched up against 6-4 Dwyane Wade, keyed the spurt with 13 third-quarter points. And the Heat missed nine straight shots during the run.
“It was 51-51 and it looked like it was going to be a possession game, and the next thing I looked up and it was 14 before the next time out,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.
“You have to give them credit. They came out with great energy during that spurt. I think all three games have had a big burst of energy and momentum when one side has been able to separate. That’s what happened tonight.
“They played with great energy particularly during that stretch.”
Kaminsky said, “I was just playing for pride. They came at me to start the game, I didn’t do well on defense and I started hanging my head.
“At halftime I was like, ‘Well, it can’t get any worse than this so you might as well go out there and play your game and see what happens.’ I was just able to get some buckets and it went well.”
The Heat had actually hit 10 of their first 15 shots and finished 27-of-79, so they were 17-of-64 in the final 40 minutes. The Heat’s bench combined to go 3-of-17 from the field.
“(Miami president) Pat Riley gets the credit for saying it, it’s a make or miss league,” Clifford said. “The nights when you make, you look good. The nights when you miss, it looks bad.
“I’m sure they feel like they missed some open shots. The difference for us defensively was our attention to detail. We did the little things right tonight.” Luol Deng led the Heat with 19 points. Wade scored 17, Hassan Whiteside had 13 points and 18 rebounds, and Goran Dragic scored 11. “This is a series, best of seven,” Deng said. “We knew at some point they’d have a good game. They’re competitive and they play hard and it’s not by accident that they had a good season. “It wasn’t going to be one of those where you keep them quiet the whole series. They’re good players and they responded.”