- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 5, 2004

MIAMI — Long removed from their 0-7 start, the Miami Heat now seem unbeatable at home — which is why they’re headed for the second round of the NBA Playoffs.

With the Heat running from the start and New Orleans guard Baron Davis hobbled by halftime, Miami extended its home winning streak to 16 games by beating the Hornets 85-77 last night to clinch the first-round series, 4-3.

The home team won every game, and the Heat became the final NBA team to reach the second round — and the most improbable. They were 25-57 last season, 0-7 in November, 5-15 in December and 25-36 in March before staging a late-season surge.

“We have a lot to be proud of,” forward Lamar Odom said. “At 5-15 in the NBA, a lot of teams start to get ready for next year. But we worked and worked and worked and worked and worked. This win tonight — that’s all that hard work. It paid off.”

Miami advanced to the Eastern Conference semifinals against the top-seeded Indiana Pacers, who have been idle since completing a sweep of Boston on April 25.

“I’m not talking about Indiana tonight,” Heat coach Stan Van Gundy said with a grin. “That’s out. I’m enjoying this for at least three or four hours.”

Game 1 is tomorrow night in Indianapolis.

“If I was Indiana, I’d be kind of nervous playing against this team,” the Hornets’ Davis said. “They’re young and talented, and they play like they’ve got nothing to lose.”

Smothering defense and a potent transition game gave a crowd of 20,286 — the largest in Heat history — plenty to cheer about.

Caron Butler led the winner-take-all victory with 23 points, and Rafer Alston made four free throws in the final 2:09 after the Hornets reduced a 16-point deficit to five. Miami finished with 18 fast-break points to five for New Orleans.

“It was Aqueduct race track out there tonight,” said Odom, who had 16 points and nine rebounds. “We just keep pushing it and pushing it.”

The injury-plagued Davis bruised his tailbone when he drew an offensive foul and took a tumble late in the second quarter. He limped to the locker room before halftime, played just three minutes in the second half and watched the fourth quarter from the bench as New Orleans turned to veteran Steve Smith for the bulk of its offense.

Davis had been hampered earlier in the series by knee, ankle and elbow injuries.

“I can’t move too much,” he shouted to coach Tim Floyd shortly before leaving the game for good with the Hornets trailing 52-39.

“If I could have played, I would have played,” Davis said later. “I could hardly walk.”

Miami made the other Hornets look just as slow, outscoring them 14-0 on fast-break points in the first half. The Heat defense forced 21 turnovers to create repeated opportunities in the open court.

“Our Achilles’ heel was turnovers,” Hornets forward P.J. Brown said. “We didn’t take care of the ball, and they took advantage.”

None of New Orleans’ starters reached double figures until the final three minutes. The 35-year-old Smith came off the bench to keep them in the game with a season-high 25 points, including five 3-pointers.

The young Heat survived some shaky moments down the stretch. They had their biggest lead, 71-55 with less than seven minutes left, but two 3-pointers by Smith helped cut the margin to 73-68 with 3:22 to go.

Smith missed a 3-pointer that would have cut the margin to three with 44 seconds left, and Dwyane Wade’s dunk with 32 seconds remaining sealed the win.

The defeat ended an up-and-down season for first-year Hornets coach Floyd, whose job may be in jeopardy after his veteran team felt short of expectations.

“This team needs to do some soul-searching — everyone, not just the players,” center Jamaal Magloire said.

The first Game 7 of the NBA playoffs was lopsided most of the night. The Hornets fell behind by 10 points early, drew even and then went 6:54 without a point as the Heat scored 15 consecutive points to lead 33-18 midway through the second quarter.

The sellout crowd was a factor from the start — an all-too-familiar scenario for the Hornets, who finished 0-6 in Miami this season.

“This was an incredible atmosphere tonight,” Floyd said. “Their fans have gotten behind this team. They’ve energized these young guys. They played at a different quickness level tonight. They just got us on our heels early with their attack.”

The early deficits left the Hornets with few opportunities for the trash-talking that served as a soundtrack to their Game 6 victory. And given the rambunctious crowd, the Heat wouldn’t have heard the taunts anyway.

All was forgiven when the 17-day series ended, and players from the two teams exchanged hugs and handshakes after the final buzzer.

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