Fresh off his 31st birthday, Luol Deng had a career day, scoring 31 points in the Miami Heat’s 123–91 Game 1 victory over the Charlotte Hornets.
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Luol Deng settled into the corner for the Heat’s first possession of the day, his knees bent and hands ready, prepared for whatever came next. In a flash, the ball found Joe Johnson at the top of the key and he shuffled it to Deng, who knocked down a three and gave Miami its first points.
The story of a 48-minute NBA game is rarely revealed within the first few moments of play, but the Heat’s initial offensive possession was emblematic of what we would see for the duration of their 123–91 Game 1 win over the Hornets on Sunday.
The Heat offense would function with impunity and make history along the way. Deng would own the night and post the best postseason debut in team history.
Deng, who turned 31 on Saturday, looked like his former All-Star self on Sunday, wreaking havoc on defense and making nearly every shot he attempted. In fact, Deng had a perfect first quarter, with 14 points on 5-of-5 shooting from the field. He missed only two shots and finished with a game-high 31 points as Miami outpaced Charlotte in every way.
With Deng as its anchor, Miami’s offensive firepower proved far too much for a Charlotte defense that rated among the league’s best in the regular season. Miami set playoff franchise records with 123 points and 46 made field goals.
There were tangible reasons for Miami’s success, as it shot 57.6%, outrebounded Charlotte 42–28 and maintained a 20-point lead for much of the night. Then there were the intangibles, with the veteran Heat playing faster, putting forth more effort on 50–50 plays, and defending with more fervor.
Miami built its lead based on the first set of examples, but flexed consistent effort to keep the Hornets at bay. The Heat’s rare combination of new and old, veteran and novice, kept them on track.
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Their mainstays understood the moment and set a tone from the opening tip, but Miami’s young legs also played an important role. The list of contributors was long and the ages were varied.
Hassan Whiteside, Dwyane Wade, Amare Stoudemire, Joe Johnson, Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson all made an impact in Miami’s wire-to-wire to win. Whiteside posted 21 points, 11 rebounds, and changed several inside shots. Wade and Johnson kicked into gear in the midrange and took advantage of mismatches.
Charlotte struggled as much as Miami soared on Sunday. Nicolas Batum kept the Hornets alive with 20 points in the first half, but Kemba Walker couldn’t find space to create, and Al Jefferson sat on the bench flexing his heavily wrapped knee.
Starts this slow are hard to recover from, and the Hornets never did find their footing. While Jefferson entered the game and made a difference against Whiteside, Batum slowed down and only scored four points in the second half. Walker found his shot and room to operate, but his teammates couldn’t make shots once he hit them with passes.
Things were so bad for Charlotte near the end that it looked like it quit, while the Heat played hard and cheered harder from the sidelines. Even with Deng, Whiteside and Wade done for the night, Charlotte struggled to contain Miami. Once the starting group sat, Stoudemire and newly signed Dorell Wright scored in bunches to help Miami make history.
The Hornets have been here before. In their last playoff appearance, they faced LeBron James’s Miami Heat and were dispatched in four games. They could be headed for a similar fate if Sunday serves as any indication. It’s up to Charlotte to change that narrative and play more like the team that ruled the second half of the season and finished with 48 wins.