His shirt drenched in sweat, Paul Silas stood speechless in the
Charlotte Hornets' locker room at 10:57 p.m. last Friday,
shrugging his immense shoulders. The Hornets' coach was at a loss
to describe what had just happened, and on the television in the
corner behind him, Miami Heat coach Pat Riley struggled to come
to terms with it as well. With a 94-79 victory over the Heat at
the Charlotte Coliseum, the Hornets had become only the fourth
lower-seeded team in NBA playoff history to sweep a series, and
this one was by far the most lopsided. Charlotte's average margin
of victory in the three games, including a pair of road wins, was
22.3 points. "It was no contest," Riley said on TV. "It's a
feeling of being outplayed, outcoached, out-everythinged."
Outcoached? That admission sparked a grin from the 57-year-old
Silas, whose relationship with Riley has been strained since
1991-92, when he worked for Riley as a New York Knicks assistant.
Silas felt that Riley didn't give him enough responsibility that
season and viewed him as lazy. Until Charlotte hired him late in
the 1998-99 season, Silas hadn't held an NBA head coaching job
for 16 years, and he believes that Riley disparaged his work
ethic around the league. "That always came out anonymously, but I
know who started it," says Silas. "I'm still so offended by that.
I tried to erase that stigma for a lot of years." (Riley denies
that he ever ripped Silas. "That's absolutely untrue," he says.
"I have too much respect for the man.") For the record, the two
didn't shake hands after the series.
The differences between Silas and Riley are all too apparent for
small forward Jamal Mashburn, who was traded by Miami to
Charlotte as part of a nine-player deal last August. Mashburn
went from a coach who began the playoffs with a league-record 155
postseason wins to a coach who had one. He also went from a
control freak to a guy who last week polled his players on ways
to beat the Heat. "Coach Silas treats you like a person, not just
a player," Mashburn says. "In Miami, I felt nobody cared what I
thought as long as I produced."
Few prognosticators gave Silas's squad, the No. 6 seed in the
Eastern Conference, much of a chance against the third-seeded
Heat, a team determined to avoid first-round elimination for the
third time in four years. After all, the Hornets had won only two
playoff series in their 13-year history, had bickered through a
4-9 stretch late in the season and, since March 24, had gone
winless in five games against teams in this year's playoffs. If
that weren't enough, Miami would be buoyed by center Alonzo
Mourning, whose late-season comeback from a life-threatening
kidney disease was the year's feel-good story. If focal
glomerulosclerosis couldn't stop Mourning, what hope did the
Sensing his club's endangered status, Mashburn devised a
counterattack. Headbands! The point was that the Hornets would
"band together," but the idea also served as a subtle jab at
Riley, who would never permit such a gimmick. "The headbands
certainly aren't comfortable or flattering," said Hornets guard
David Wesley, who averaged 16.7 points on 54.5% shooting in the
series, "so they'd better unite us."
The laid-back Silas didn't learn about his troops' new attire
until a few hours before Game 1. "You never know what will
motivate players," Silas said, "but the whole thing is sort of
cute, isn't it?"
Accessorized with black headbands, the Hornets opened the series
by routing the Heat 106-80 in Miami. Two days later Charlotte
went on a 24-5 run to start the third quarter on the way to a
102-76 wipeout. Silas ratcheted up the tempo to wear down the
older, slower Heat, who turned the ball over 40 times in the
first two games. Using his taller front line of 6'11" Elden
Campbell, 6'11" P.J. Brown and the 6'8" Mashburn to maximum
advantage, Silas also doubled any player trying to post up,
enticing the Heat's suspect perimeter shooters to fire away. (In
its home losses, Miami hit only 11 of 40 threes.) As the Heat
was scoring seven points in the third quarter of Game 2, a
record for playoff futility, Silas turned to his three
assistants and said, "Can you believe what we're watching?" In
consecutive games Miami endured its two worst losses of the
season and its two worst home playoff defeats ever.
While racking up 50 points in the two games, the normally placid
Mashburn talked smack to Miami point guard Tim Hardaway and once
responded to Heat hecklers with a throat-slashing gesture. "Mash
took a lot of the blame for Miami's last three disappointing
postseasons, and he developed a big chip on his shoulder," says
Brown, who also came to Charlotte in the August trade. "He won't
admit it, but sweeping the Heat is sweet revenge."
Meanwhile, Charlotte's second-year point guard, Baron Davis,
scored a total of 40 points in the opening two wins while running
circles around Hardaway, who was hobbled by a bruised left foot.
Growing up, Davis idolized Hardaway and wore the sneakers he
endorsed. A dedicated student of the game, the 6'3", 212-pound
Davis struggled as a rookie out of UCLA, but he has since pored
over lots of video, studying how Hardaway uses his strength to
ward off defenders in the lane, how John Stockton manipulates
opponents in a half-court set and how Magic Johnson commanded the
fast break. "Baron's like those players in the way that he's
aware of everything happening on the court," Silas says. "His
development is like the rehearsal of a play. He spent some time
stumbling around and forgetting his lines, and then all of a
sudden, in these playoffs, he's nailed it."
Davis is now a confident leader who averaged 13.8 points and 7.3
assists this season. "I see this series as a coming-out party for
me," the 22-year-old Davis says. "I'm getting a chance to show
the nation how much I've grown up in the last 12 months."
Playing Game 3 in front of 22,283 fans--only the third sellout
crowd at the Hive all season--the Hornets seized a 58-31 lead at
halftime en route to another blowout. As the Heat packed for the
ride to the airport, where the team would be greeted by a statue
of the Queen of Charlotte wearing a home white headband, the
players chose not to invoke the obvious injury excuses. Hardaway
sat out Game 3 because of his bum foot, and Mourning was often
fatigued. The 31-year-old center will spend this off-season
pondering an almost cruel, question: Did his comeback actually
contribute to the Heat's demise?
Miami went 42-27 during his absence but was 8-8 after his return.
Mourning was too rusty to be a factor in the low post against
Charlotte, and several of his teammates, especially All-Star
forward Anthony Mason, who had carried a big part of the scoring
burden in Mourning's absence, looked out of sync alongside him.
Mashburn's 71 points in the series, which included 25 for 25 from
the foul line, bettered the entire output of Miami's starting
frontcourt of Mourning (35 points), Mason (16) and Bruce Bowen
(12). "I expect to perform at a certain level, and I didn't do
that," said Mourning. "I still have that fire burning in me to
succeed. It's a matter of my body catching up to my mind-set."
Riley, who had spent the previous two days staving off rumors of
his retirement, looked stunned last Friday night that he couldn't
locate the winner within. "I'm like a basketball coachaholic
who's bottomed out," Riley said. "I need to do some deep
searching to find out how to coach the Miami Heat."
Silas, on the other hand, knew which buttons to push, drawing
inspiration from his own playing career. He recalled how the
Seattle SuperSonics reinvented themselves with a blockbuster deal
in May 1977 by acquiring him, along with Marvin Webster and
Willie Wise, from the Denver Nuggets for Tom Burleson and Bobby
Wilkerson. The Sonics went 5-17 to start the next season before
meshing in time to defeat Denver for the Western Conference
title. "That was a magical season with everything clicking--just
the way it is with us now," said Silas, whose Sonics won the
championship the next season. "I was in a similar position to
Mash, leading the charge because I wanted the Nuggets to know
they had made a big mistake by trading me."
Three days before the 2001 playoffs began, Silas gathered his
Hornets after practice and shared that part of his history with
them for the first time. He stared directly at Mashburn and then
Davis before summing up the story's message with two words: