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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Bobcats Week in Review: The final deathblow to the Era of Despair

Posted By on Wed, Feb 26, 2014 at 3:48 PM

There's nothing quite like watching Anthony Tolliver hit a 3 during Katy Perry's "Eye of the Tiger" at a redneck bar. Trust me on this.

The song did not fit a bumbling 4th quarter or the team as a whole, but it did seem fitting to smile at a team that officially left behind the Era of Despair that left fans distraught the past few seasons.

In a week where the Bobcats-Hornets were buyers (!) at the trade deadline, solidified their playoff hopes with a 4-0 record and beat the pizza all 4 times, the oddest part came while I drank alone at a Greensboro bar. No one played music through the first three quarters, so I heard the smattering of conversations and billiards shots while Charlotte looked the most dominant they had been all year, against a decent New Orleans Pelicans squad.

Then, the 4th quarter began and for some reason a patron played "Eye of the Tiger." While the Pelicans made a nice run and nearly beat the Bobcats-Hornets, Charlotte won on the strength of Al Jefferson's prolific night - 33 pts/10 reb on 30 shots.

That kind of night had become commonplace for the first week after the all-star break. Jefferson dominated a home-and-home/back-to-back against the Detroit Pistons earlier in the week with 32 and 29 points, respectively.

"[Jefferson]'s a bad matchup for the entire league right now," interim Pistons coach John Loyer said. "We knew exactly what we was going to do - they ran the same plays they always run - but there's not much you can do to stop him."

Having scored 30 or more in 7 of the last 12 games, Loyer echoed the sentiments of most teams that have had to face Jefferson in the past few weeks. Since Kemba Walker's ankle injury, he has been a monstrous offensive force.

That said, games against New Orleans and Memphis provided the first glimpse at truly defensive centers that Charlotte has seen in awhile. He handled the Anthony Davis, Greg Steimsma and Alexis Ajinca combinations the Pelicans threw at him, but the double teams took him out of the late-game collapse that nearly cost the Bobcats-Hornets the game.

So, then, what will happen against the league's elite teams? Memphis used a combination of Jefferson's tired legs and the NBA's 2013 Defensive Player of the Year to deaden Jefferson's effect on the game. The Grizzlies limited Jefferson's shots and effectiveness, leaving him 2-13 (his lowest shot output since a loss to the Suns before the break) with only 6 points.

Without Jefferson's normal output, Kemba Walker had the best game since his return from injury weeks ago. His 31 points kept the offense afloat, though the team sputtered in the 2nd and 3rd quarters. The stage set, the team had a choice in the 4th: play big or lose a heartbreaker like have so often.

The first few weeks of the season showed a problematic pattern: Charlotte could put their numbers up in the first three quarters before fading in the 4th. They did not look like a playoff team and questions mounted as to Jefferson's ability to play with another bad team.

Those questions have faded away as Charlotte plays their best ball of the season. Walker and Jefferson anchor the offense, while Michael Kidd-Gilchrist leads a team defense that currently sits top-5 in points allowed on defense. Both of those showed in Saturday's Memphis game: the defense held the Grizzlies to under 90 points while the offense hit their free throws late to seal a victory.

Now, the team looks to integrate two new bench players - Charlotte acquired backup guards Luke Ridnour and Gary Neal for Ramon Sessions and seldom-used Jeff Adrien. Neal's reputation as a three-point specialist will be welcomed on a team that attempts and hits very few of them. Ridnour will play the Sessions backup role and while Sessions played some minutes with Walker, Sessions and Ridnour look startlingly similar on paper.
The only real problem with losing Sessions comes with his propensity for getting to the free-throw line in limited minutes. Ridnour will not do that, but he will run the second unit admirably. Neal allows Kemba a running mate that can hit threes on fast breaks though Neal has limited ball-handling capabilities.

The Bobcats-Hornets bought at the trade deadline. And they went 4-0 in a week. They have a long break to acclimate two new players to a good defense and a sputtering offense. Jefferson is rolling at the highest level of his career. The Bobcats climbed to 6th in the playoff chase, earning their spot to play Toronto in the playoffs if they hold all positions over the next few weeks.

The schedule gets very favorable for Charlotte, but first, they will see a real test over the next four games. They get the Spurs (albeit without Tony Parker), the Thunder, the Heat and the Pacers next. Then, they get a series of losing-record teams (minus another game at Memphis) almost stretching to the playoffs. If they win their fifth in a row at San Antonio, they will likely get a little buzz before they have to play complete playoff teams.
The buzz, if it comes, will be well deserved. They may not have "Eye of the Tiger" level status quite yet, but a 4-0 week and some added weapons definitely solidifies them as a team with a real shot at not only the playoffs, but actual respectability. They are playing their best ball after the All-Star break in a position where that matters. They have a good stretch coming and if they stay healthy, that stretch could even last until the second-round of the playoffs.

The Era of Despair gone, the Bobcats-Hornets have reason to believe that mediocrity no longer looks otherworldly.

Now, they begin to storm the castles of respectability.

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