Somewhere in the midst of the second quarter, in the middle of an 8-0 Heat run to close the half, Charlotte’s star point guard Kemba Walker turned toward the visitors’ bench and made eye contact with Steve Clifford. Kemba looked down and beat his chest, and his third-year head coach patted his back and turned back down to his clipboard.
Just two hours later, the same dejected exchange would take place between Portland’s star guard Damian Lillard and his fourth-year head coach Terry Stotts, as the Los Angeles Clippers started clicking en route to a dominating fourth quarter to shut the door on a Blazers comeback.
The trajectory for these two teams took different routes, but ultimately, they have ended up in the same place: young teams gasping for air and reaching to climb out of the bottom of their conference.
In the case of Charlotte, the young Hornets shocked experts and survived a rocky start to the season and the loss of starting small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Following the All-Star break, the Hornets quietly turned into one of the most efficient teams in the league, achieving the third-best post-All-Star record in the NBA, behind just the Spurs and Warriors.
Their offense transformed into a run-and-gun shooting clinic. The Hornets lit up the three-point line, led by the resurgence of Marvin Williams and Jeremy Lin, and the acquisition of Nic Batum. But the defining change in the Hornets was the emergence of a refined and improved Kemba Walker. Walker’s efficiency rose to new highs, and his consistency was secure for the first time in his young NBA career.
The Hornets rose to the three seed late in the season, but ultimately lost tiebreakers to the Heat, Celtics and Hawks to fall to sixth. However, they entered the postseason looking like a team ready to take the next step.
In Portland, the season mostly started the same way. Going into the season, analysts saw the Trailblazers as a rebuilding team, losing four of their five starters from the previous team (including the aforementioned Batum), and returning just Damian Lillard and a slew of young players.
But through the season, the Blazers transformed into one of the most fun and active teams in the league, setting pace for the defense through their efficient offense, championed by the emergence of CJ McCollum into a serious offensive weapon. But the turning point for the Blazers was the full emergence of Lillard as a two-way star. The Blazers erupted at the end of the season, winning 17 of their final 28, on their way to the West’s fifth seed.
But, as both teams’ trajectory has risen at the same rate, on Wednesday night, both seemed to come to a screeching halt at the same rate. Game 1 saw the Clippers dismantle the Blazers’ poor defensive intensity, and the Heat put up an historic offensive outpouring to crush the Hornets.
Entering Game 2, both teams were determined to right the ship, and provide the challenge to the veteran-laden squads against them that they did in the regular season.
Charlotte came out with astounding intensity in the first half, trading punches with Miami and carrying a lead through most of the second quarter. But the Heat erupted again, scoring 72 points in the first half, and hitting every shot in the closing 3:23 (10-10), contested or not, to lead by 12 at halftime.
In LA, the Blazers upped the intensity as well, going back and forward in the Clippers on the back of McCollum and Aminu. But at the beginning of the fourth quarter, the Clippers simply overpowered the smaller and younger Blazers, bullying them into a 21-point deficit by the end of the frame.
Not all is lost: both teams will get their shot in front of their home fans at least two times, and have chances to even this series. But one can’t help but see these teams as young and overmatched, both relying on their leaders to carry a team that looks like shell of the two upstarts we saw from January onward.
Now, the youth and inexperience is showing. Charlotte head coach Steve Clifford said afterward, “You can tell our guys are dejected. But we aren’t out. I know our guys and we’ll be back at it. It’s frustrating when a team hits that many shots, but there’s not much you can do about it.”
For both teams, regular-season performance has not translated into postseason success. Marvin Williams, perhaps Charlotte’s most important piece of its new lineup outside of Walker, has hit just one shot in the series, and was 0-10 on Wednesday night. For Portland, McCollum, a 20 PPG scorer in the regular season, is scoring just 12 PPG in the series.
But the biggest catalysts for these teams are also struggling. Walker scored 29 points on Wednesday, but needed 29 shots. And Damian scored on just 6-22 shots from the field.
Both of these teams have been great stories, getting to the same spot nearly the same way. But for either to turn the corner and prevent this from becoming the end of a nice little story, they both need their star guards to pick these teams up the way they did before April.
Otherwise, the Blazers and Hornets will end in exactly the same spot: at home.