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Craig Sager discusses being an inspiration, SI cover story
10:33 | NBA
Craig Sager discusses being an inspiration, SI cover story
Thursday April 28th, 2016

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Courtney Lee was on the hunt for redemption. Armed with his best shot to have a positive effect in the Hornets’ critical Game 5 in Miami, he missed a transition layup with 1:04 left that could have been an easy dunk and a critical bucket in a tight series. Instead, the shot that careened off the front of the rim haunted Lee as the Hornets started the next possession. Once Kemba Walker missed a jump shot with 29.9 seconds remaining, Lee found his opportunity.

The Hornets guard attacked an open lane near the free-throw line and grabbed the rebound. He tossed it to Jeremy Lin and caught the return pass at the top of the three-point line in rhythm. It was good and he could breathe a sigh of relief. After a chaotic defensive possession and confounding inbound, Charlotte could do the same, securing a 90–88 victory over the Heat. 

“Like you said, this wasn’t my best shooting performance,” Lee told the TNT broadcast. “I felt like I couldn’t make a shot, but the biggest one went in so I’m grateful.”

Lee did struggle. Walker did, too. But the Hornets shot well from the three-point line as a team and pulled off the first road win in the series. Once pronounced dead in the water, Charlotte is now in the driver’s seat after three straight wins.

• MORE NBA: Lee credits massage, bible session for shot | Playoff results

Each game has been hotly contested, and Wednesday was no exception. This one was in doubt right until the final seconds, with both teams trading runs for the duration.

For Charlotte, Jeremy Lin, Marvin Williams and Al Jefferson keyed an offense that hit 12 threes and shot 50% from deep. The return of Nicolas Batum also sparked the Hornets. 

For much of the first half, Lin controlled the pace as Walker struggled. This was not the Linsanity of old, where dramatic scoring plays turned possessions. He used a more measured approach and feasted on Miami’s offense with drives and dishes when Hassan Whiteside did not patrol the lane. His worked opened up the game for Williams, who scored 17 points after going scoreless Games 2 and 4 and scoring only 14 points in the entire series.

This was far from Charlotte’s best performance, and yet they now return to Charlotte with a chance to close a series that few gave them a chance to win. Parity controlled the Eastern Conference landscape down to the final days of the regular season, yet Miami still emerged as the favorite. Now, given the makeup of this series, the Heat could counter with a win in Charlotte and no one would be surprised.

Expectations aside, there will be a lot on the line for Miami on Friday. Should it lose in the first round, it cannot use, as The Miami Herald’s Barry Jackson notes, all $40 million of its salary cap on players populating its current roster. This could be a completely different team.

Now, Dwyane Wade will likely re-sign, Chris Bosh is expected to return to the floor, Goran Dragic is under contract and rookies Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson have showed promise. There are no other guarantees.

Whiteside, who will be courted by teams from all over the league, started the game flashing all the skills that will make him a hot commodity this summer. His six points and three rebounds paced Miami in the first quarter, but he soon gave way to Wade, who scored 25 points and came a few plays short of changing the tenor of this series.

To Charlotte’s credit, Wade was stifled down the stretch. Lee corralled him on the perimeter and earned a key block against him as well. Zeller used his length to stop a bullish Wade drive and keep Charlotte in control.

That the Hornets can now finally dictate heir own destiny is not lost on a team that hasn’t escaped the first round since 2002. They have turned this series on grit and could ride that mentality to a second-round appearance few could have predicted.

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