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 Hornets have?
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 73 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."