MIAMI (AP) Finding separation between the Miami Heat and the Charlotte Hornets is a highly difficult task right now.
They finished with the same 48-34 record. They split their four matchups, each team winning once on the other's home floor. They both ranked among the top five NBA teams in winning percentage since the All-Star break. They even held opponents to identical shooting numbers, 44 percent from the floor and 35 percent from 3-point range.
Over the next couple weeks, separation will finally happen.
The third-seeded Heat and sixth-seeded Hornets are set to meet in an Eastern Conference first round series, Game 1 to be played in Miami on Sunday. It's the first postseason matchup between Miami and Charlotte since the Heat got an opening-round sweep in 2014, though both teams have changed mightily since.
''It's starting to kick in,'' said Heat guard Dwyane Wade, who's heading to the playoffs for the 11th time and searching for his fourth NBA title. ''I think guys are excited, as well as trying to get sharp, trying to get mentally sharp. ... It's not the regular season anymore. It's another level.''
The Hornets agree with that sentiment.
''We've had good games against them,'' Hornets coach Steve Clifford said. ''The playoffs are different.''
Neither team made the playoffs last season, and both probably exceeded some expectations this year. Clifford and Heat coach Erik Spoelstra both figure to get at least some votes in coach of the year balloting, and Miami kept its season together after Chris Bosh saw his regular season end when a blood clot was found in his leg at the All-Star break for the second straight year.
''We feel like, if we do it all together and if we all chip in, and we're detailed in what we do and we play the right way, we feel like we have a chance to make some noise,'' Charlotte guard Jeremy Lin said. ''And at the end of the day, I think that's what's gotten us to this point, is when we have five guys on the floor, we're all playing together and we're playing the right way.''
Here's some of what to know as the series gets set to begin:
ELITE HEAT: By returning to the postseason, the Heat are back in very familiar territory. Among the four major U.S. pro sports, the Heat are one of only five teams (out of 122) with at least 17 playoff appearances and at least three championships over the last 21 years. The others: the Detroit Red Wings, the New York Yankees, the Los Angeles Lakers and the San Antonio Spurs. And since Miami became a four-sport town in 1993, the Heat have 18 playoff berths - three more than the Dolphins, Marlins and Panthers combined.
LIN FACTOR: After The New York Times wrote about a fan's video and letter that asked ''what the league has against'' Lin and suggested opponents are allowed to be unfairly physical with him, the NBA responded on Friday and debunked the assertion. The league found Lin has made 1,537 drives in the last three seasons, which is less than Reggie Jackson (2,031), Tony Parker (1,974), Tyreke Evans (1,969), Ty Lawson (1,891), Kyrie Irving (1,649) or Victor Oladipo (1,544) - and not only have none of them been flagrantly fouled, but Lin has drawn more common fouls than any of them.
3 VERSUS 6: Both teams can find a good sign in how this matchup got seeded. Since the NBA went to a best-of-seven format for the opening round in 2003, No. 3 seeds have beaten No. 6 seeds 20 times in 26 series. (Advantage, Heat on that one.) But back in 2001, which the last time the Hornets and Heat met in a 3-6 series, Miami had the higher seed and got swept 3-0 anyway. (Advantage, Hornets on that one.)
DRAGIC'S WAIT: Finally, Heat point guard Goran Dragic will start a playoff game. ''I'm like a kid with a new toy,'' Dragic said. He has been in the league for eight seasons, and played in the playoffs only once before - 2009-10 with Phoenix (with current Heat center Amare Stoudemire), coming off the bench behind Steve Nash in those 16 postseason games.
HOME IMPORTANCE: The Heat have won a road game in each of their last 16 playoff series, the longest streak in NBA history. That one will be put to the test in this matchup. Charlotte was one of three teams in the East to win 30 games at home this season (Cleveland and Toronto being the others), though Miami was one of the teams who beat the Hornets on their home floor.