MIAMI – Each of the past two Miami championship runs has been highlighted by moments where a sharpshooter enters a game and immediately provides a surprise spark.
James Jones had his turn Sunday.
And the lift he brought, combined with the expected playoffs showings from LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, have the Heat off and running in these playoffs.
James scored 27 points, Wade added 23 and the Heat rode two big runs – one late in the first half, the other down the stretch – to beat the Charlotte Bobcats, 99-88, in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference first-round series. Miami trailed for much of the first half, but rallied and has now topped Charlotte 17 straight times.
“We were flat to start,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “I think our guys were just anxious.”
Game 2 of the best-of-seven series is Wednesday. Al Jefferson will be receiving plenty of treatment until then.
Kemba Walker scored 20 points for the Bobcats, who started fast behind Jefferson – who was diagnosed with a strained left plantar fascia after a misstep in the first quarter, and undertook a pair of injections to continue playing.
“We did some really good things (Sunday),” Walker said. “We just have to keep executing throughout the game. We can’t get rattled.”
Jefferson still finished with 18 points and 10 rebounds – yet in what can’t be a very exciting sign for Charlotte, he left the arena in a walking boot.
“Just got to suck it up, man,” said Jefferson, who confessed that he’s no fan of needles but insisted he doesn’t plan on sitting out.
Gary Neal scored 17 and Josh McRoberts added 15 for Charlotte, which shot only 12 free throws compared to 26 by Miami, and allowed the Heat to turn their 15 turnovers into 20 points.
“If we’re going to have 15 turnovers, we’re not going to win,” Bobcats coach Steve Clifford said.
Miami sealed it with an 18-4 run in the fourth, all but three of those points coming with James taking a rest.
Luke Ridnour made a high-arcing baseline jumper over Ray Allen with 10:29 remaining to bring Charlotte within 74-69. That’s when James had a breather. He returned to breathing room.
Chris Andersen had a tip-in for a 12-point lead, Wade – who shot 10-for-16 – made a three-pointer as the shot clock was winding down with 6:50 to go to make it 85-70, and another score by Andersen pushed the margin to 17.
With that, Game 1 was secure.
“That group that was in once I took that break at the 10-minute mark in the fourth quarter, they just bumped the lead,” James said. “Obviously, to have three Hall of Famers in the game when I’m out of the game, CB, D-Wade and Ray ... that was big-time.”
So was Jones.
He didn’t play in the first half of any playoffs game last season and was out of the rotation much of this year. But when he checked in with 4:19to go in the half Sunday, Miami led, 35-34.
“Hell of a spark,” Wade said.
Before long, it was 47-36, Jones scoring four of those late as Miami was wrapping up a 19-2 run. He added five more in the third, and his three-pointer with 10:08 remaining kickstarted what became the game-deciding spurt down the stretch.
“When you’re dressed, you’re expected to perform,” Jones said.
Two years ago, it was Mike Miller giving a lift to the Heat in that off-the-bench role. Last year, it was Miller and Shane Battier sharing those honors. Miller is in Memphis now and Battier is out of the rotation, which means a door might be opening for Jones.
“He’s going to be a very, very key ingredient to our success,” James said.
Charlotte had four players making their first playoffs starts. It was also the first national-television appearance this season for the Bobcats, who seemed anything but overwhelmed by the moment.
Walker made a 3-pointer to beat the first-half buzzer, drawing Charlotte within 49-42. That started an 11-0 run by the Bobcats, who scored the first eight of the third quarter to reclaim a one-point lead.
And the third stayed close, neither team leading by more than three for the majority of the third. But the Heat closed strong behind Jones and James, who made a 3-pointer with 0.6 seconds left for a 72-65 Miami lead entering the fourth.