The last time the New Orleans Hornets visited AmericanAirlines Arena, a spot in the Eastern Conference semifinals was on the line.
Much has changed over the last eight months for the struggling Hornets, who are in a new conference and have the worst record in the NBA as they enter their first meeting of the season with the East-leading Miami Heat.
After falling into an early 2-0 hole, the Hornets rallied to force a Game 7 in Miami last May during the first round of the playoffs. But the Heat took an early lead in the decisive game and held on for an 85-77 victory, dropping New Orleans to 0-6 at Miami for the season.
With expansion Charlotte entering the East, the Hornets moved to the Western Conference, hired a new coach in Byron Scott and got off to an embarrassing and injury-plagued 1-19 mark.
The Heat, who eventually lost in the conference semifinals to Indiana, completed a blockbuster offseason deal with the Los Angeles Lakers for All-Star center Shaquille O’Neal. They are currently sitting atop the East with the fourth-best mark in the NBA.
Miami won a franchise-record 14 straight from Dec. 6-Jan. 1, but has been inconsistent since, going just 4-4, including Friday’s 106-100 overtime loss to Indiana.
Dwyane Wade scored 30 points for Miami, which made 48.1 percent of its shots from the field—and 47.2 percent from the foul line on 17-for-36 shooting.
O’Neal scored 24 points for the Heat, who are trying to avoid losing two straight for the third time this season, and second time this month.
“I missed too many (free throws),” said O’Neal, who went 4-of-13 at the line. “They were smarter than we were, especially in the fourth quarter.”
The Hornets have been impressive of late, winning five of their last eight games, including Saturday’s 88-85 triumph over the Los Angeles Clippers.
Dan Dickau had a career-high 27 points and eight assists and Lee Nailon added 22 points for New Orleans, which is trying for its first three-game win streak of the season. The Hornets also won consecutive games from Jan. 8-11, beginning their current run of modest success.
Dickau hit two big 3-pointers in the final 18 seconds for the Hornets, who were without point guard Baron Davis for the third game in a row due to a sore right ankle. New Orleans also was without Jamaal Magloire, David West and Jamal Mashburn, who is out for the season.