PLAYOFF SERIES: Eastern Conference first round, Game 1.
After the way the Miami Heat started the season, just getting into the playoffs would have been an accomplishment.
Earning home-court advantage in the first round gives them reason to believe they can accomplish even more.
The Heat hope to carry the momentum from their sizzling finish into their first postseason appearance since 2001 when they host the New Orleans Hornets.
Miami lost its first seven games of the season and was still 11 games below .500 after falling to 25-36 on March 2. But the Heat finished by winning 17 of their final 21 games, moving from out of the playoff picture all the way to fourth place in the Eastern Conference.
That gives the Heat the first two games at home, where they were 29-12 this season. They have won 12 straight at AmericanAirlines Arena.
“Those guys play extra hard at home. They seem to be a lot more comfortable at home,” said Hornets forward P.J. Brown, a former Heat player.
“They feed off the crowd. They’ve got some exciting players that can make a lot of exciting plays. One thing were going to try and do is keep that crowd out of it because they’ve really been supporting their team, especially the second half of the year.”
It will be the first postseason appearance for the Heat since they lost to the Hornets in the first round in 2001. Miami would certainly like to avenge that loss, as it was swept by scores of 106-80, 102-76 and 94-79.
“They physically took the series,” Heat center Brian Grant said. “And from that point on, we had to take our lumps for the next couple of years.”
While the Hornets have numerous veterans who played in that series, the Heat are a young team that was rebuilt following the first two losing seasons of former coach Pat Riley’s career.
Riley relinquished his coaching duties before the season, leaving Stan Van Gundy to lead the Heat back to the postseason. He has done it with a talented young roster that features playoff newcomers Lamar Odom, Caron Butler and rookie Dwyane Wade.
The Hornets probably can’t match the Heat athletically—especially with star forward Jamal Mashburn out due to injury—but don’t believe they need to. New Orleans expects its experience to make up for any disadvantages.
“Guys are going to be zeroed in more on what you can do offensively and defensively, and you’ve just got to use your experience,” forward George Lynch said. “You’ve got to be more clever, be willing to cut and make the right pass and not gamble defensively. That’s where the experience comes in.
“The playoffs aren’t about who’s most athletic. It’s going to come down to who plays the smartest with two minutes left in the game.”
That isn’t to say the Hornets don’t have athletic players. They figure to have an advantage in the middle with All-Star center Jamaal Magloire, who averaged 21.7 points and 12.1 rebounds while recording six 20-point, 10-rebound contests in his last seven games.
Also, point guard Baron Davis returned for the final two games of the season after missing nine with a sprained ankle. He finished sixth in the NBA in scoring, fourth in assists and first in steals, joining Michael Adams and Gary Payton as the only players since 1976-77 to finish in the top 10 in those three categories.
Miami clearly has the advantage in momentum. New Orleans dropped seven of its last 11 games, holding opponents to 81.5 points per game in the wins but allowing 97.3 points and 49 percent shooting in the losses.
But New Orleans won when it needed to, beating Washington in its season finale to avoid the No. 6 seed and a first-round matchup with powerful Detroit. Now the Hornets are ready to move past a somewhat disappointing regular season and get their first postseason series win since moving to New Orleans. They lost to Philadelphia in the first round last year.
“If we’re going to make any push to do anything, the time is now,” Davis said. “I’m just excited and my teammates are excited for everybody to get out and practice and do some new stuff.”
Miami hosts Game 2 on Wednesday night.
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Hornets - 5th seed. Heat - 4th seed.
TEAM LEADERS: Hornets - Davis, 22.9 ppg and 7.5 apg; Magloire, 10.3 rpg. Heat - Jones, 17.3 ppg; Odom, 9.7 rpg; Wade, 4.5 apg.
REGULAR SEASON SERIES: Heat, 3-1. Miami won the first two meetings, then the teams split a pair of games a week apart in March. Jones averaged 18.8 points in the series and the Heat held the Hornets to 36.9 percent shooting. Davis averaged 28 points, eight rebounds and 6.7 assists. New Orleans rebounded Miami by an average of just three, but had a 58-38 advantage in its lone win.