Startling confession: I skipped the Orlando-Charlotte game. The Bobcats-Hornets had just played one of their best offensive games of the season against the Nets - a game that featured unbelievable performances from both teams. A loss in Orlando with a rare day's rest? Implausible.
But here we are. The NBA, like most professional sports, has too long a season, and talent tires. With the grind of the regular season nearly over, Charlotte has only a few chances to make a charge at playing a beatable team in the playoffs. As of right now, the 5th seed gets the Raptors, an imminently beatable team winning the worst division in the league. The 6th seed gets the injury-leveled Bulls, a semi-beatable team that will likely outlast whatever team they draw.
The Bulls present the worst matchup of the two hopeful ones. Joakim Noah can actually handle Al Jefferson, placing the offensive load squarely on Kemba Walker and Gerald Henderson. Get ready for a lot of fadeaway baseline jumpers and long contested threes. Get ready for a lot of 87-79 grinders that sportswriters complain about on Twitter and a Bulls five-game series win.
The Raptors present the best opportunity for a series win in the Bobcats-Hornets vapid history. They present no challenge to Jefferson and few challenges at other positions. Cody Zeller, Walker, Henderson, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (defensively) all have the chance to dominate the person opposite them so long as the ball movement stays as clean as it should. Get ready for a lot of 97-85 games where one team pulls away late and a Bobcats-Hornets six-game series win.
While the Pacers have hit a tough spot, it's hard to imagine they won't hit another gear once the playoffs start. They took the eventual world champion Heat to seven games the past two years and have a deeper team than ever before.
The other playoff scenarios involve the Pacers and Heat, likely four-game sweeps. While the Pacers have hit a tough spot, it's hard to imagine their next gear they have hit the last two seasons to challenge the eventual back-to-back champions will not be there. The Pacers are deep and immensely talented. Best-case for Charlotte would be to win one game in that series and lose the deciding game in convincing fashion.
Still, it would be a win in a playoff series, something Charlotte has never seen in this incarnation of the team. Right now, we would have to play Indiana. Charlotte sat a spot out of sixth place behind Washington coming into Monday night.
With their playoff seeding on the line, the Bobcats-Hornets played a miserable second quarter. They allowed 40, went down as many as 16 and looked entirely listless as the game slipped away. The Wizards' 33-9 run crippled Charlotte.
The 3rd quarter saw them battle back to within 10 multiple times, only to take terrible shots and throw the ball away. As the 4th quarter started, the game looked like a hopeless blowout waiting to happen. Even the bright spots - Zeller's excellent game and Chris Douglas-Roberts' nice run in the third - were abnormal and pointlessly timed.
Then, with around 8 minutes left, the Bobcats began whipping Washington's ass. I hate to sound so crude, but that's what happened. The Wizards missed every crucial shot and the Bobcats-Hornets mixed a series of offensive rebounds with critically-used possessions. They went to what worked - Douglas-Roberts and Zeller contributed heavily, Jefferson's struggles allowed Walker to attack the rim and the defense collapsed around the middle after giving up countless first-half dunks.
In one of their worst performances in months, Charlotte won. And they pulled within two games of the sixth spot in the East. Truly, the road to respectability cannot get less bumpy than that.
The rest of the schedule lines up favorably. Games against Boston, Philadelphia (twice), Cleveland, Washington (again), Orlando (again), Atlanta and the final game of the season against Chicago, who will likely already have clinched their spot in the playoffs, leave the Bobcats with a real shot at moving up depending upon the play of those above them. Only three of those teams have a realistic shot at the playoffs and Atlanta has struggled mightily as of late.
As the Bobcats-Hornets prepare for the playoffs, the celebration begins. The postseason! Playoff seeding! Joy! Above .500 and a tournament against one of the best basketball teams in the world await. They just have to shake off the worst teams in the league and take care of business.
As we learned in Orlando, that's not always the easiest task.