The Miami Heat are the first team to advance to the second round of the 2014 NBA playoffs, scoring a 109-98 victory over the Charlotte Bobcats on Monday to finish off a four-game sweep, end Charlotte's surprisingly strong season under first-year head coach Steve Clifford, and officially conclude The Bobcats Era, as the franchise will return to the familiar and much beloved Hornets moniker next season. (Goodnight, sweet Rufus.)
As he did throughout the series, LeBron James led the way, scoring a game-high 31 points on 10-for-19 shooting to go with nine assists, seven rebounds, three steals and a block in 43 minutes. It was James' 64th 30-point playoff game, second only to Kobe Bryant (88) among active players. He averaged 30 per game on the dot in the four-game series win, shooting 55.7 percent from the floor and 79.5 percent from the foul line (on 11 attempts a night) to go with eight boards, six dimes and 2.3 steals per contest, continuing to find (and cash in on) the looks he wanted against the likes of top Bobcats wing defender Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Chris Douglas-Roberts and anyone else Clifford could throw at him.
Twenty of the four-time Most Valuable Player's points came in the second half, including seven in less than a minute and a half of action after catching a knee to the thigh from Bobcats center Bismack Biyombo early in the third quarter:
James' solo spurt gave the Heat needed life after the Bobcats had headed into halftime with a 54-52 lead, thanks to some spirited work from point guard Kemba Walker (12 points, three rebounds, three assists, three blocks and two steals before intermission) and a supporting cast that knew everyone needed to step up in the absence of injured star center Al Jefferson. Miami put the hammer down after halftime, though.
James went from scorer (seven points on 3-for-3 shooting in the first six minutes of the third quarter) to facilitator (five assists leading to 13 points, all on either layups or 3-pointers, in the final six minutes). On the other end, the Heat stepped up their defensive pressure, forcing six Charlotte turnovers in the frame (and scoring 15 points off them) after the Bobcats had coughed it up just four times in the first half. Erik Spoelstra's club finished the quarter on an 18-6 run to take a 13-point lead into the fourth quarter, and while the feisty 'Cats kept fighting for the full 48, they couldn't get over the hump, never getting closer than seven points down the stretch. The Heat have now won 20 consecutive games over the Bobcats, a streak stretching back to March 2010.
After the game ended, James made a point of heading over to Bobcats owner Michael Jordan — the target (except not really) of The Stare Seen (Except Not Really) Around the World — to offer a brief congratulations on a hard-fought, if short-lived, series:
Chris Bosh chipped in 17 points, including a pair of key late jumpers to keep Charlotte at bay, to go with eight rebounds and three assists, while Dwayne Wade added 15 points, three boards, two assists and a steal for the Heat. Miami will face the winner of the first-round matchup between the Toronto Raptors and Brooklyn Nets. That series is tied at two games apiece after Toronto's Game 4 win on Sunday; the earliest that series could wrap up is Friday night, meaning the earliest Miami's second-round series could begin is Sunday, according to Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun Sentinel. The Heat will now have a lengthy layoff for scouting, treatment, rest and practice; this is the benefit of taking care of business as quickly as possible in the first round.
Walker led the way for Charlotte with 29 points on 11-for-15 shooting, including a 4-for-7 mark from downtown, with five rebounds, five assists and five turnovers in 43 minutes. Four other Bobcats scored in double figures, led by trade-deadline acquisition Gary Neal's 16 and December pickup Douglas-Roberts' 14 points on three field-goal attempts in just eight minutes off the bench. While another four-game sweep — the Bobcats also failed to secure a win in their 2010 opening-round matchup with Dwight Howard's Orlando Magic — obviously isn't the way the 'Cats wanted to bow out this season, there's plenty of cause for optimism moving forward.
Longtime respected assistant coach Clifford proved his worth in his first year at the head of the bench, transforming Charlotte from the league's worst defense in terms of points allowed per possession in 2012-13 into the No. 6-ranked unit in the NBA this season, even coaxing career-best defensive play out of noted sieve Jefferson in the middle. The first year of Jefferson's monster contract was a decided win, giving Charlotte a bankable, perhaps-All-NBA-caliber offensive commodity for the first time in this iteration of the franchise's history.
Youngsters Walker, Kidd-Gilchrist and Cody Zeller all took steps forward this season, the about-to-be Hornets will have about $21 million in salary-cap space with which to upgrade their roster, and depending on how the lottery shakes out, Charlotte could wind up with a lottery pick, thanks to a very-shrewd-in-retrospect 2012 trade with the Detroit Pistons. This isn't 2010, where a first-round sweep was the very definite end of the line for a capped-out, veteran-heavy team whose coach had one foot out the door; the future, as presently constituted, looks awful bright in the Queen City.
Charlotte's present, though, faded to black on Monday night. For James, Wade, Bosh, Spoelstra and company, on the other hand, the quest for a fourth straight NBA finals appearance and third straight O'Brien trophy continues apace.
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