Despite blowout loss, Steve Clifford and Hornets leave their mark

MIAMI -- Game recognizes game, and before the biggest inflection point of his best season as an NBA head coach, Steve Clifford was effusive in his praise of Erik Spoelstra for how he remodeled the Miami Heat without Chris Bosh.

“From a pure coaching standpoint,” Clifford said before Game 5, “it’s really incredible what he’s done.”

Clifford beams his passion for the craft of coaching the way Kemba Walker does his confidence in, well, everything. Behind kind eyes and a ready smile is a belief that each, in his own way, is right. So while Clifford’s sermon on the fallacy of big-game adjustments may have seemed like a media scolding, those around him saw it more as the coach, after 16 years on an NBA bench, emphasizing what countless hours of film study had shown him.

What he saw after two wins apiece for both the Heat and Charlotte Hornets was all one could ask for from a postseason series of two teams that finished with the same record.

“If you look at how they’re playing, it’s more like how we’re playing in the regular season,” Clifford said. “And we’re playing more how they played in the regular season. And that’s what playoff series [are about].”

The Hornets, who fired up 3s at a top-five rate in the regular season, won by pounding the ball in the paint, and they did so again to win a third time on that Wednesday night in Miami, where the Heat had lost just twice since the All-Star break. After 12 years -- including a decade under the guise of a listless bobcat -- without a second-round appearance, the Hornets were heading home with a chance to close.

But after Dwyane Wade ripped away the cape from Walker to re-tie the series, the Hornets found themselves out of identities and out of time. Charlotte, in the 106-73 Game 7 loss, shot a modest 33.3 percent from 3, finished a season-worst 28.9 percent in the paint, got to the line a series-worst 12 times and watched as the Heat dominated down low for 58 rebounds and 58 paint points, 18 of which coming from the previously MIA Goran Dragic.

What just days ago seemed like the crowning moment for Charlotte and its star-in-the-making head coach slowly devolved into the fifth-biggest Game 7 loss in history, according to ESPN Stats & Info research.

“At the end of the day, whether it’s fair or not, everybody at every level -- you’re going to be viewed how you do in the playoffs,” Clifford said after the lopsided defeat that ended the Hornets’ season. “That’s fair, that’s fair, more than fair. We had a terrific regular season. This would have been a huge win for our franchise, for our city, and we came up short.

“The only thing I’m saying is, I’m still proud of our guys. It wasn’t like 4-0. Game 1 and 2, they beat us pretty soundly, and then to come back and play the way we did in the next three, I think shows a lot about what we have in our locker room. Although I’m disappointed -- it’s a result-oriented business -- it still doesn’t take away from the fact that our guys fought like hell for three games.”

The Hornets did indeed battle, through both injuries and an ugly start. Charlotte trailed by 11 after a first quarter in which it allowed 17 rebounds, six on the offensive glass. But with Nicolas Batum and Cody Zeller hobbling, and Marvin Williams playing through an unidentified injury to his shooting elbow that Clifford revealed after the game, the Hornets narrowed the deficit to four with 3:35 to play.

Then, the floodgates opened. The Heat outscored the Hornets 29-11 in a third quarter that rendered the final one moot. Both teams unloaded their deep reserves with 5:56 to play and the deficit up to 28.

Charlotte’s 73 points were the third fewest in franchise postseason history and tied for the fewest it scored in a game this season.

“They came out and were able to get stops,” Courtney Lee said. “In that third quarter, it seemed like they were making everything from the outside. They got into the paint and they were making layups. We struggled to score in the second half. The coaches did a great job of preparing us and getting us ready for this whole playoff series.

“It’s a sour taste, but we’ll learn from it. Hopefully, all the guys will be back next year and we’ll learn from it.”

The Heat did, too. Spoelstra tipped his cap to Clifford and the Hornets for giving the Heat a much-needed push toward finding a “different level.”

“This series was so bizarre as it kept moving on,” Spoelstra said. “We started to play a little bit more like the Charlotte Hornets, and they started to play a little bit more like the Miami Heat. That’s how many adjustments each team had to make.”

Now the adjustments move from the coaching room to the second-floor offices of basketball ops, with seven, maybe eight free agents to decide upon before this summer. General manager Rich Cho, in a recent interview, said he acquired the likes of Batum and Lee with the hopes that the team would have a shot at bringing them back next season. But with an open market craving the 3-and-D wings the Hornets rode to success, Charlotte will have its hands full trying to keep together the core of its most successful team in recent history.

Either way, the Hornets will have Clifford, who agreed to a three-year contract extension in November. And while he may not have a series victory to show for two weeks of study and execution, the work he did to get Charlotte to this point is more than enough for now.

“You can take this and learn from it,” Clifford said. “I’m proud of our guys. I thought they played a good series until today, and there’s a lot to build on.”