Miami point guard Goran Dragic had a game-high 25 points as the Heat advanced to the Eastern Conference semifinals by routing the Charlotte Hornets 106-73 in a deciding Game 7 on Sunday.
The Heat will play the winner of Sunday other Game 7 between the Toronto Raptors and Indiana Pacers.
“The paint was more open, and I could attack,” Slovenian Dragic said. “(The Hornets) didn’t rotate so quickly. I had more room to operate, and it was a little bit easier than it was earlier.”
Miami, which never trailed, also got 16 points from Gerald Green, 15 points from Luol Deng, 12 points from Dwyane Wade and 10 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks from Hassan Whiteside.
“I’m not a prophet,” Wade said, “but I knew we were winning this game.”
Charlotte, which just a few days ago had a 3-2 series lead, failed to close out the Heat. Hornets guard Kemba Walker, who had 37 points against Miami on Friday, was held to nine points on 3-for-16 shooting. He also had a game-high three turnovers.
Dragic and Heat coach Erik Spoelstra praised Walker despite his poor final game.
“Kemba is an unbelievable player,” Dragic said. “It’s tough to stay in front of him. We knew he was going to be aggressive, maybe try to catch us being tired. We did an amazing job of team defence.”
Spoelstra said it was a “travesty” that Walker was not named an All-Star this season.
“There isn’t anything Kemba can’t do,” Spoelstra said. “He puts so much pressure on you. But Goran didn’t get discouraged. He found his opportunities to be aggressive once their defence started to weaken.
“Dwyane’s usage was high in the last game. Goran had to be a big factor for us tonight.”
Besides winning the point guard battle, the other big advantage for Miami came on the boards. The Heat had a 58-36 edge on rebounds. That helped Miami hold a 58-22 advantage in paint points. Miami had an 18-5 edge on second-chance points.
In fact, Miami had the advantage from the start, taking a 29-18 lead after the first quarter. The Heat stretched their lead to 54-42 at halftime as Dragic had 17 points.
“We had a bad start because of the rebounding game,” Hornets coach Steve Clifford said. “At halftime, I thought we were fine. But in the third quarter, things got away from us.”
Indeed, Miami raced to a 20-4 start to the third and headed into the final period with an 83-53 lead.
The Hornets’ season, which became doomed midway through the third quarter, was nailed shut in the fourth.
But Clifford and Hornets forward Nicolas Batum said they were proud of the team.
“We had a great season,” Batum said of a Hornets team that had the best record in the Eastern Conference since Feb. 1. “We had a chance to win (on Friday) but D-Wade was amazing. All we can do is learn from it.”
Clifford said he realises his team, which improved by 15 regular-season wins from the previous year, will ultimately be judged by playoff performances.
“That’s fair,” Clifford said of those bottom-line assessments. “But I’m still proud of our guys. This wasn’t (a) 4-0 (sweep). To go down 2-0 and win the next three games shows what we have in our locker-room.”