CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Rest in peace, Charlotte Bobcats.
The 10-year run of the Bobcats moniker and colors came to an end on Monday, and it was only fitting the franchise that’s delivered 20 straight losses to the Bobcats pitched the final dirt on their casket.
After running off the court with a 54-52 halftime lead and receiving dap from owner Michael Jordan on the way into the locker room, it was still hard to think the Bobcats would live to see another day without Al Jefferson to assist. The Heat did exactly what they did in game three, coming out hot in the third quarter for a 32-17 advantage in the period to take over the game and the series with a 109-98 win.
"You can’t beat yourselves in this league in the playoffs," said head coach Steve Clifford. "We just made too many mistakes, turnovers and coverage mistakes at the other end. But definitely doesn’t take away from the fight our guys had all year."
Sweep aside, as the franchise marches on under the Hornets logo, the decade of Bobcats ended on a more positive note than at any point in its history. There’s a foundation now. They are competitive now. They have a coach now, and there’s no chance of wholesale changes like they had to do last time they made the playoffs in 2010.
Sure, they got swept, but as Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra said, "It was much more competitive than 4-0 would suggest."
"They are heading in the right direction," said LeBron James.
That direction starts with Jefferson, first and foremost. They returned four starters from a team that won 21 games in the regular season a year ago and won 43 this year. The difference? Jefferson. If he had been healthy throughout this series, who knows how it would have gone. It’s hard not to think Charlotte couldn’t have stolen at least a game with a healthy Jefferson, especially after testing the Heat without him in Game 4.
"It’d be hard to find any team in the playoffs right now that is more reliant on one guy than we are on him," said Clifford.
Just as important, too, Kemba Walker showed he’s the franchise point guard this year and in the playoffs. While they’re in desperate need of wing scoring to help carry the load, Walker proved the moment wasn’t too big for him and took on even more of the scoring load Monday with Jefferson out, scoring 29 points on 11-of-15 shooting.
"We just needed experience, man. We all appreciate the experience," said Walker. "We’re all pretty disappointed it went this way, but, at the same time, it’s our first go around for a lot of us, and I think this experience will give us a lot of confidence because we have most of our core guys returning."
While it was a tough end to the regular season for the upstart Bobcats, could the playoffs really have gone any better for the Heat so far?
Not only did they finish a four-game sweep of the Bobcats, but the Atlanta Hawks look like they’re going to hand deliver homecourt advantage through the Eastern Conference Finals back to the Heat. The Heat were tested in this series, too, without having to play any additional games and will now wait for an opponent that’s going to have to play at least six games in the first round.
"Especially when you’re seeing everything around the league, how competitive each series is, this does not get old," said Spoelstra said. "We do not take it for granted having the opportunity to move on."
More importantly than anything, the Heat head to the next round playing good ball. James was sensational as always throughout and the reintegration of Dwyane Wade back into the lineup couldn’t have gone much better for the Heat. Not only did Wade look like his old self, but Spoelstra was able to limit his minutes, never using him for more than 35 minutes a game in the series.
"Well, lets keep the main thing first is he was able to play this series and he feels great right now. That’s a huge success," said Spoelstra. "Secondly, we knew when he was coming back form the hamstring that it’s not going to happen over night and we can’t fast track it. I was taking him out at various times when I normally wouldn’t. I think he’ll get better each game, but this is an important week."
More than just Wade, the Heat solved their bugaboo to end the regular season — turnovers. Outside of a Game 2 lapse with 17 turnovers, the Heat took tremendous care of the basketball. Even with that anomaly, the Heat still only averaged 9.5 turnovers per game in the four-game series. With how efficiently they shoot the basketball, they’re going to be a tremendously difficult out if they keep that up.
"It’s a process. I think this is step one for us. This is a great direction we’re going in right now. We played championship-level basketball and we got tested and that was great. We got tested by a very young and scrappy bobcats basketball team," said James. "The way we responded was a championship-type attitude. We’re looking forward to our next opponent and we’ll be ready for them."
There was cause for concern Monday, though, when James toppled to the deck under the basket in the third quarter, grabbing at his leg. He looked in tremendous pain but came back in. Despite hobbling somewhat, he was sensational the rest of the way and finished with 31 points, 7 rebounds and 9 assists on 10-of-19 shooting. The sweep will give him a couple extra days to nurse what Spoelstra described as a thigh contusion and James said it was only painful for a couple minutes there. It was just one of a couple tough falls and physical fouls James took in the series.
"It’s essential for our offense for him to be aggressive and not just settle for long jumpers, but there’s a cost for that. He takes a lot of contact," said Spoelstra.
If James can continue to play like that and stay healthy throughout the playoffs, you can pretty much go ahead and pencil Miami into the NBA Finals. No one has the wherewithal in the East to hang with the Heat for seven games. In a playoffs in which Miami was the only frontrunner with a series lead heading into Monday’s games, don’t underestimate Miami completing what they set out to do.
"Some people that are cynical might look at this and say we’re supposed to win 4-0 but it’s not working that way in this league," said Spoelstra. "We understand how fragile it is and how tough it is to win in this league. We’re very pleased that we can move on. We beat a quality opponent and everyone else is still battling it out."