You know, for a 6-foot-5 shooting guard, Courtney Lee sure seems to be a pretty important offensive rebounder.
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Two nights after grabbing a crucial carom of a Kemba Walker miss with four seconds left to help ice the Charlotte Hornets' Game 4 win to even their first-round playoff series with the Miami Heat at two games apiece, Lee once again found himself in the right place at the right time. This time, though, he didn't just hold the Heat off; he put them down himself.
With the Heat holding a one-point lead and just over 30 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter of Wednesday's pivotal Game 5, Walker once again rose and fired a shot that the Hornets needed. Once again, it came up short ... and once again, Lee was there, reading the ball off the rim, seeing that he'd been left alone — his man, Dwyane Wade, had crashed down into the paint from the far corner to help rookie wing Josh Richardson keep Charlotte big man Cody Zeller off the offensive glass — and racing past Miami's Joe Johnson to come down with the ball.
He pitched it back out to teammate Jeremy Lin beyond the arc to reset, but when Lin gave it right back, he saw that nobody in Heat white had stepped up to meet him — Johnson was with Lin, Luol Deng was on Marvin Williams, Wade was still in front of Zeller, Richardson had picked up Walker, and center Hassan Whiteside was, as just about always, 10 toes down in the paint. So Lee just rose right up and fired, splashing a deep 3 through the bottom of the net to put the Hornets up 90-88 with 25.2 seconds left, as a hush fell over the crowd at AmericanAirlines Arena.
Miami still had a chance to even things up or take the lead, but Charlotte proved equal to the task on the final Heat possession:
After a couple of mishandled dribbles by Wade and Johnson ragged about 15 seconds off the game clock, Wade was able to beat Lee heading left into the paint, but with Zeller looming as a shot-blocker at the rim, Wade kicked the pass out to Goran Dragic in the left corner. Despite having stunted toward the paint to show Wade another defender in his path on the drive, Walker was quick enough to recover out to Dragic and block his attempt at a corner 3, sending the Heat into scramble mode.
Wade caught the deflected ball, took a dribble, and tried to go right back up with it, only to go smack into the chest of Zeller, lose the ball on the way up, and hit the deck in a heap. No whistles blew. The ball landed in Walker's hands, and Dragic had to foul, stopping the clock with 2.6 seconds left.
A pair of adventurous inbounds attempts later — one where it looked like Miami had forced a turnover, only for replay review to confirm that Wade had touched the ball while his left foot was still out of bounds; another where Deng and Richardson collided in an attempt to go for a steal, leaving nobody near enough to foul Zeller once he caught it — and the Hornets had come away with a gigantic 90-88 win, their third straight in the series and the franchise's first road playoff victory since April 30, 2002 to take a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series. Steve Clifford's club can finish the job and advance to the Eastern Conference semifinals by knocking off Miami in Friday's Game 6 at Time Warner Cable Arena.
After the game, Lee — who finished with eight points on 2-for-9 shooting — offered a somewhat eyebrow-raising anecdote in an attempt to explain how he remained confident enough to fire the eventual game-winner:
"I had a massage yesterday, and we pretty much do Bible study in the massage session, and she was explaining faith," he told TNT's Rebecca Haarlow. "And it was just like, 'Believe in something that you can't see.' It was not my best shooting performance. I felt like I couldn't make a shot, but the biggest shot went in, so I'm grateful."
And limber. Grateful, and limber.
The game-winner must have felt especially sweet for Lee, considering he came up empty on a runout layup less than a minute earlier that would have given Charlotte the lead, thanks to what looked like it might have been a goaltend by a backtracking Wade:
On one hand, it's not totally clear whether Wade actually made contact with the ball after it touched the backboard as he came in for the chasedown. On the other, he did appear to slap the glass as he flew in, which, according to the rulebook and depending on the refs' interpretation of a few factors (whether Wade got the glass before or after the ball was above or below rim level, or whether he "vibrated" the backboard hard enough to cause the ball "to make an unnatural bounce"), could have constituted a goaltend even if he didn't touch the ball.
You could have argued that the Hornets got jobbed out of two huge points at a critical juncture — Lee certainly did after the play — but because of Lee's subsequent heroics, it wound up not mattering ... thanks, in part, to the Heat perhaps being jobbed out of a chance for two huge points at a critical juncture when Wade's putback attempt ended with plenty of contact, but no foul called, despite what looked like a failed attempt to get vertical by Zeller:
The contact Zeller made with @DwyaneWade w 4.5 secs was a foul. A defender must land in the same spot he left floor to be vertical.— Stu Jackson (@StuJackson32) April 28, 2016
Whatever the last two minute report winds up saying on Thursday afternoon, it won't matter much to Miami at this point.
Wade on no-call: "I haven't looked at it. It's pointless now. It ain't gonna change anything. I thought I did, but it wasn't called."— Ethan J. Skolnick (@EthanJSkolnick) April 28, 2016
Erik Spoelstra says he didn't even need to check the film on the last play: "Dwyane got fouled."— Tom Haberstroh (@tomhaberstroh) April 28, 2016
Dwyane Wade: "My wife got to deal with me tonight, no one else. I'm gonna be pissed off."— Ethan J. Skolnick (@EthanJSkolnick) April 28, 2016
You can understand why. With Dragic struggling, scoring 10 points on 5-for-15 shooting and having a difficult time guarding either Lin or Walker, Wade rose up as Miami's primary offensive weapon, scoring a team-high 25 points on 11-for-19 shooting with five rebounds and four assists:
But despite Wade's offensive work — and, after the first quarter, more committed defensive work, too — Charlotte just had enough answers on Wednesday, including on the defensive end, holding Miami scoreless over the final 2 1/2 minutes.
After going 1-for-17 in the series' first two games and 0-for-5 in Game 4, Marvin Williams came up huge, scoring a Hornets-high 17 points on 7-for-10 shooting (3-for-4 from 3-point land, including a super tough one with just over three minutes left to put Charlotte up one). He also added eight rebounds, three steals, two assists and some great help defense as part of an overall effort that saw Charlotte force 14 Miami turnovers leading to 16 points and hold the Heat to 42 percent shooting.
Charlotte Hornets PR (@HornetsPR) April 28, 2016
Walker missed 14 of his 18 field-goal attempts, but he went 3-for-5 from deep, grabbed five rebounds and dished five assists. Lin once again lived in the paint, breaking down the Miami defense to the tune of 11 points, seven assists and six rebounds. Zeller and Spencer Hawes both gave Charlotte good minutes off the bench, as Clifford zagged by playing bigger lineups to counteract small-ball Heat units that featured Justise Winslow, betting that his bigs could sag off the poor-shooting rookie to help pack the paint without sacrificing shooting on the other end. The gambit worked, as Winslow went 1-for-6 from the floor and the Hornets outscored the Heat by 14 points in Winslow's 19 minutes.
The Hornets hit tough shot after tough shot in the fourth quarter, with Williams, Lin and Nicolas Batum — reactivated after missing Games 3 and 4 with an ankle injury, and looking several steps slow for most of the night — all drilling key jumpers to keep the pressure on Miami late. Eventually, though, it was an easy one — an open 3 from the top of the key — created by the hard work of fighting for an offensive rebound that put the Heat on the brink.
"It hurts, losing at home. But welcome to the playoffs," Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra said after the game. "The playoffs just started. When a team beats somebody on the road, the playoffs start. As raw as this feels, we have 48 hours to regroup and get ready for a heck of a battle in Game 6."
In years past, the Heat could rely on their experience as a group to carry them through these sorts of postseason pitfalls. This, however, is a different team:
#DwayneWade: 'Don't know where this team is at. Wish I could tell you. First time we're going through this situation together.'— Dave George (@Dave_GeorgePBP) April 28, 2016
We'll all find out together come Friday night.
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