PLAYOFF SERIES: Eastern Conference first round; series tied 3-3.
Entering the playoffs, this may have been the least intriguing first-round matchup.
It’s become the best.
The only opening-round series to go past five games will be decided as the Miami Heat, winners of 15 in a row at home, host the New Orleans Hornets in what should be a very fierce and physical Game 7.
“It’s going to be a war, just like every other game in this series. It might be a little more intense,” Miami rookie guard Dwyane Wade said. “It’s a great series—two great teams going at it. That’s what you watch the playoffs for, to see who’s going to duke it out in Game 7.”
A hatred has grown between the teams, highlighted by a Game 6 on Sunday that included plenty of tussling and trash talk. New Orleans won 89-83, keeping the home team perfect in this series, despite nearly blowing an 18-point lead in the fourth quarter.
“Composure is everything, especially in this series. The team that’s been able to get stops down at the end and execute their offense, and hit big shots, has been the team to win,” Hornets guard Baron Davis said. “Going down to Miami this last time, we plan on doing everything right.”
The mind games and brute force from Sunday’s battle could carry over.
Davis exchanged words with the Heat bench twice in the fourth quarter and had to be pulled away by teammates the second time. P.J. Brown barked at Wade when the two briefly tangled coming up court. Robert Traylor was called for a technical when he flattened Eddie Jones and was ejected as he continued to shout at Miami’s bench.
“It just left a nasty taste in your mouth. I don’t know what they were trying to do,” Miami forward Caron Butler said. “All we did was come to play basketball. Now we’re ready to go back to Miami and redeem ourselves. And we look forward to the challenge.”
New Orleans has quite a challenge, trying to become the first team to win at Miami since Toronto on March 2. The Heat have won 15 straight at the AmericanAirlines Arena, and are 5-0 at home against the Hornets this season.
The home team is 70-15 all-time in Game 7s.
New Orleans again is likely to need players besides Davis to step up offensively. The Heat should keep added pressure on Davis, who averaged 21.4 points through the first five games despite a sprained ankle.
He was held to 15 points Sunday but did have 12 assists as forwards Brown and Lynch, known mostly for their defensive prowess, contributed 16 points apiece. Jamaal Magloire added 14 as the Hornets’ front line outplayed Miami’s big men.
“We know they’re going to come at Baron, double-team him any chance they get,” Brown said. “They want other people to make plays for the team, and I thought we stepped up and did a great job of doing that.”
Miami needs Odom to bounce back after he scored only nine points on 3-of-12 shooting. He had been averaging 17.8 in the playoffs.
“I had a bad game … It happens like that some times,” said Odom, who fouled out with 2:20 to play.
Wade scored 27 points Sunday after totaling just 13 on 5-of-20 shooting in the other two games at New Orleans. He has played well in all three matchups at Miami, averaging 18.7 points and shooting 50 percent.
As the faster, younger team in this series, the Heat get out in transition as much as possible to produce offense against the bigger, slower Hornets. However, Miami got sloppy in Game 6, committing 21 turnovers and shooting 38.7 percent.
“We have to play our game period,” Heat center Brian Grant said. “Talking and composure, you have to try to keep that intact.”
While the loser goes home, the winner faces a daunting task with only one day to rest before opening the conference semifinals against the team that finished with the league’s best record—the Indiana Pacers.
The Heat were at home against the New York Knicks for the only two Game 7s in their history, winning in 1997 and losing in 2000. The Hornets lost the only Game 7 in team history at Milwaukee in 2001.
“We feel comfortable and confident that we can get the job done,” Brown said. “Coming down the stretch, we didn’t take care of the ball and play smart down there (in Miami). Hopefully, we learned our lesson. Hopefully, this fourth time will be the charm for us.”
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Hornets - 5th seed. Heat - 4th seed.
PROBABLE STARTERS: Hornets - F Lynch, F Brown, C Magloire, G Davis, G David Wesley. Heat - F Butler, F Odom, C Grant, G Wade, G Jones.
PLAYOFF TEAM LEADERS: Hornets - Davis, 20.3 ppg and 7.5 apg; Brown, 9.8 rpg. Heat - Odom, 16.3 ppg; Grant, 9.2 rpg; Wade, 5.3 apg.