Things can change so quickly in the NBA playoffs.
Remember back in 2012, when the Miami Heat fell 3-2 in their Eastern Conference Finals series against the Boston Celtics, and fans thought the season was over and the Big Three experiment had failed?
Remember just a few days ago when people said the Heat should trade Goran Dragic?
The Heat's $90 million, five-year point guard earned his paycheck with a masterful performance in his first Game 7 ever. After losing his match-up to Kemba Walker throughout the series, "The Dragon" attacked the basket to score 25 points on 11-of-17 shooting from the field, including two first-half 3s that set the tone in a game Miami never trailed, and added six rebounds, four assists and a blocked shot on Walker. The Heat ended the Hornets' season in embarrassing fashion, winning 106-73 to move onto the second round.
Dragic spearheaded a dominant Heat stretch that bridged the second and third quarters -- Miami was only up 44-40 with 3:36 left in the first half -- to turn the final quarter into a celebration. One of Dragic's best plays came late in the second quarter -- Hassan Whiteside blocked a shot from Al Jefferson, and Dragic used a behind-the-back dribble and a spin move to elude two defenders for a fast-break layup. The point guard played so well that he even had a breakaway dunk midway through the third quarter.
Aside from Dragic's offense, Whiteside's defensive activity fueled this blowout win. Erik Spoelstra altered his defensive strategy against Al Jefferson, double-teaming the center. This wrinkle prevented Whiteside from getting into foul trouble -- he had one foul Sunday after fouling out in Game 6 -- and the Hornets failed to make Miami pay from downtown. Charlotte just made 7 of 21 3-point attempts. Whiteside finished with five blocks, 12 rebounds and 10 points. Whiteside gobbled up rebounds left and right in the first quarter, helping Miami get second-chance points. The Heat's first two baskets of the second half were two Whiteside jams, ballooning a double-digit lead.
Luol Deng scored 7 of his 15 points in the first quarter, continuing his trend of starting Miami's offense in the playoffs. Deng stood as an indispensable part of the Heat's success in this playoff series, proving his worth as a dynamic player who can defend multiple positions and shoot from downtown. Deng made 20 3-pointers in this just-concluded first-round series -- Miami would have a great chance of advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals if he continues to serve as a reliable 3-point threat.
The Heat didn't need heroics from Dwyane Wade tonight, but he still offered world-class energy and intensity. Along with Whiteside, Wade rose for rebounds and played active defense to start the game. The three-time NBA champion also made numerous crafty moves to the basket, including a nice fake-out of Kemba Walker on the baseline for a layup at the end of the first half. Wade, who got teary-eyed during the national anthem performance, wasn't going to get eliminated from the first round without a fight.
This Game 7 also offered Spoelstra the chance to play Gerald Green and Tyler Johnson in mop-up time. Green missed a few shots before making six in a row in the fourth quarter -- the last two were back-to-back 3s that put Miami up 101-63. Johnson, who lest we forget was ahead of Josh Richardson on the point guard depth chart before his injury, had a nice drive to the basket and made a 3 of his own.
The Heat will await the winner of tonight's Game 7 match-up between the Toronto Raptors and Indiana Pacers.