"Shocking" is the adjective most people are applying to describe the sweep of the Miami Heat by the Charlotte Hornets in the first round of the Eastern Conference Playoffs. However, a closer look at the team from the college basketball hotbed of North Carolina proves that maybe nobody should be shocked by this result.
|Baron Davis averaged 20.3 ppg against the Heat in the first round.|
Marc Serota/NBAE Photos
The Hornets were one of the most unpredictable teams in the NBA this season. Long winning streaks highlighted by dominant play were followed by commensurate losing streaks when the team lacked passion and chemistry. Many theories for this Jekyll and Hyde performance have been advanced, including lack of bench strength, unfamiliarity of players after a major offseason trade and distractions from the team's ongoing arena saga.
Whatever the truth of those theories may be, there were plenty of stretches this season when the Hornets looked like one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference. In December and again in February, the Hornets flirted with domination twice when they put together seven-game win streaks. From February 8 to March 21, the Hornets won 15 of 18 games and appeared ready to battle Milwaukee down to the wire for the Central Division title. The team also fared well all season against the better teams in the East, compiling a 16-10 record against the other seven Eastern Conference playoff teams.
"I think people fail to realize that at the beginning of the season, we went 20-9," said Hornets' leading scorer Jamal Mashburn
, who scorched his former Heat teammates for 23.7 points per game in the first round. "Then we went on a bit of a lull, I should say a big lull [16 losses over next 21 games]. Then we went on another streak [15-3], and then we hit another lull [2-8]."
The up-and-down nature of the Hornets' season did not inspire great confidence among NBA experts, most of whom picked Miami to not only dismiss the Hornets but also to do so handily. Still, the season records show that when the Hornets were playing teams in the East they considered major threats, they came up big. Charlotte split four tough games during the regular season with Eastern Conference top seed Philadelphia, and took three of four games from Central Division winner Milwaukee.
"This is very special for the players because we really had our ups and downs this year," said Paul Silas in the aftermath of his first playoff series win as a head coach. "To come out strong the way they did the first two games [in Miami] and then come back tonight with the same energy and the same focus, it is just remarkable. I am very happy for them, elated, because they came together and would not be denied."
The question now is, with the Miami sweep boosting their confidence to record levels, how far can the Hornets go, with Milwaukee a likely Eastern Conference semifinal opponent?
"We beat them 3-1 during the regular season," Silas noted, "but this is a totally different season right now. I like our chances against anybody right now. We have to get a lot of production from a lot of people, and that's what we've done so far. I like our chances no matter who we play."
Chris Ekstrand is a member of the NBA Editorial Staff.