With quiet for six straight days, it was as if the schedule makers knew the Bobcats-Hornets were about to play four out of the best five teams in the NBA. With some rest, confidence coming off of a winning streak and integration of new players, Charlotte had a fighting chance against teams with better records and better talent.
Unfortunately, the first two of those games proved too difficult.
In neither game did they look entirely overmatched. They showed some determination as the offense sputtered against the Spurs on Friday. The addition of Gary Neal could prove huge as the schedule eases up in a week. Efficient in limited minutes, Neal could see this team use him correctly - as a shooter first and primary ballhandler second. When Neal played in San Antonio, he did so as a relatively unknown player. The Spurs management and coaching staff often find these kinds of players and turn their careers around. In Neal's case, they built his résumé around shooting as a second unit hybrid point guard/shooting guard. As his career continued outside of San Antonio, his handle deteriorated. His turnover rate rose and his place in the league looked shaky. Some of that could have been due to his role on an awful Milwaukee team.
Charlotte's interest in Neal, however, could be his resurgence. The team has a bevy of guards who need the ball to score, including the also acquired Luke Ridnour, to curtail his weakness and focus him on hitting open shots when they are available.
He did that well on Friday, scoring 15 points in 23 minutes. His range comes in handy since Charlotte mainly operates from 18 feet and in when Al Jefferson plays. That gives Jefferson someone to find off of double teams and it gives Kemba a reliable shooter to find when he drives the lane.
Of course Neal's talent will be more evident as the team gels with the new players and they aren't playing the best teams in the league every night. Charlotte struggled to score late in the game because, well, the Spurs play great basketball. The Bobcats-Hornets lost to the Spurs the same way all teams do. An opponent consistently having a boatload of talent, great coaching and terrific execution will do that.
So, when the 4th quarter problems began, it seemed inevitable. The Bobcats-Hornets got the "they keep hanging around... " tag from the announcers, not unlike a low seed in the NCAA tournament, but that phrase usually means the underdog shouldn't be playing this well.
Contrasting from that performance, Charlotte's defense stood no chance against the unrelenting attack that the Thunder pressed. With too many weapons and a healthy Russell Westbrook beginning to play better, the Thunder worked over a usually better-than-average defense. If not for some untimely Westbrook turnovers, the Bobcats-Hornets would not have "hung around" until the 4th quarter. While again resilient, the team just could not get stops at any point.
Couple the bad defense with a tightly called and physical game and the real problem with being a playoff team arises. Charlotte, to use one of my least favorite phrases in history, ain't got the horses. What the team learns during a rough stretch of the season may be incalculable, but what the fans learn is imminently measurable. Even if the Bobcats finish strong, they are light years away from championship contention.
The Thunder roster looked so maximized comparatively. Steven Adams and Hasheem Thabeet contributed. Reggie Jackson, a backup point guard, dominated Walker and Ridnour. Perry Jones had a monster dunk that broke the will of the Bobcats defenders. Derek Fisher continues to flop his way onto every contender imaginable.
Putting it another way: on an 8-24 night for league MVP candidate Kevin Durant, the Thunder won going away. Sure, the game was closer than it looked, but the Thunder proved how long Charlotte has to go to contend.
Yet, the Bobcats-Hornets will soldier forward to play the Heat and Pacers next week before starting a nice stretch of winnable games. What they endure now could be a testament for the homestretch. They gave two championship-caliber teams a tough game before folding under the pressure of greatness. Some will look at their record and scoff, but the fans know that while the Bobcats can't contend, they can certainly compete.
The schedule makers did not plan for that.