The tour of final stops for the star guard continued in New Orleans on Sunday with the Miami Heat playing the team now called the Pelicans, who has played in the Western Conference every year since that 2004 Eastern Conference first-round series. It brought back memories for Wade about his initial playoff experiences.
“I think, for me, that was when I realized what the playoffs was about,” Wade said.
What everyone will remember about that series is that Wade in Game 1, his first-ever playoff game, hit the game-winner with 1.3 seconds remaining in an 81-79 victory. Wade connected on a right-handed floater in the lane over Hornets all-star guard Baron Davis and center Jamaal Magloire.
The Heat would go up 2-0 at home, but then came the challenge of playing on the road for the first time in the postseason for a young team.
“It wasn’t a good experience,” Wade said. “I was averaging [17.5 points] going into the road games, and I was feeling good about the playoffs. We was up 2-0, and I came to New Orleans and — Game 3 I played awful. I scored 2 points, a lot of turnovers. I was getting beat up every time I went to the paint.
“That’s when I realized, I was like, ‘Oh, the playoffs is different when you go on the road.’ And Game 4 was no better.”
Miami, the No. 4 seed at 42-40 by way of tiebreaker over the Hornets and the No. 6 Milwaukee Bucks that season, were back even in the series after a pair of losses in New Orleans Arena, but upon returning to AmericanAirlines Arena, the Heat were back up 3-2 to try and wrap it up back in the “Big Easy.”
They would lose Game 6, but Wade led all scorers with 27. He was starting to get a hold of tackling the road playoff atmosphere.
“It just was eye-opening for me that I needed to take my game to another level,” Wade said. “The first two games at home kind of felt like more of this [continuation] of the regular season. The road felt like the playoffs, and the performances I had that wasn’t good, it drove me to want to be better, be greater.
“I thought I was from that point on.”
The Heat — with Eddie Jones, Lamar Odom, Brian Grant, Caron Butler, Rafer Alston and a rookie Udonis Haslem alongside Wade — went back home to win Game 7 and the first-round series. They lost the ensuing series against the top-seeded Indiana Pacers, but put up a decent fight against the heavy favorites, losing in six.
“That crowd was even more of an environment and a better team, but I felt like I was more prepared,” Wade said.
Wade showed flashes of why he would become known as “Flash” and why Hall of Fame center Shaquille O’Neal that offseason would be inclined to include the Heat among his list of teams he wanted to go to after requesting a trade from the Los Angeles Lakers. The teams made the trade happen, Shaq and Wade formed a tandem, and in their second season together, Wade’s third, they would lead the franchise to its first NBA title in 2006.
Wade, of course, would win two more championships in 2012 and 2013 as part of the “Big 3” with LeBron James and Chris Bosh while making many more memories along the way.
The Hornets, which moved to New Orleans from their original home of Charlotte in 2002, were moved to the Western Conference that offseason as Charlotte got the expansion Bobcats. The franchise later had to spend two seasons as the New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of the city. They renamed themselves the Pelicans in 2013, which would allow Charlotte to change the Bobcats back to the Hornets.
The Heat have played playoff series against the original Charlotte Hornets (2001), the New Orleans Hornets (2004), the Charlotte Bobcats (2014) and the current Charlotte Hornets (2016) — all first-round matchups with the Heat winning all but the 2001 series, a three-game sweep for Charlotte.