Just at the mouth of the metaphorical mountain of champions, teams can stop at an overlook. It allows .500 teams to earn a look at the journey ahead. Teams can see the former world-title holders above them, urging the current hopefuls on. You can see fading teams' legs tiring as the climb thins them out. You can see the most steep and dangerous path lies ahead: the playoffs.
Since the reinstatement of the NBA in Charlotte, only one team has ever made it to the hardest part of the allegorical climb. They fell off the mountain in grand fashion (a first-round sweep). This year's squad has already proven to be a better, more entertaining team. Now, by clinching a playoff berth on Saturday, the team can prove it played the best basketball the Bobcats name will ever know.
Since the quest for mediocrity began last fall, the Bobcats-Hornets had a daunting task ahead of them. In the 2014 Eastern Conference, finishing the season with a losing record and making the playoffs does nothing to control Charlotte's stigma as a bad team. Fans just watched the darkest ages of ball in Charlotte. Using the above metaphor, Charlotte's season in 2011 would have seen them hike a short, flat trail around the bottom of Championship Mountain before succumbing to dysentery.
So Saturday's game against the Cavaliers had implications beyond even the playoffs. It took overtime and overcoming a truly virtuoso performance from Kyrie Irving. It took dueling scores form Al Jefferson and Kyrie in that OT. It took a combined field goal percentage that honestly reads like a Division II college game. It took some clutch free throws. The end result, though, turned into a playoff berth, an over .500 record and a realistic chance at the 6 seed.
Welcome to respectability.
There have been flashes this year of a return to old Charlotte form - a recent loss to Orlando after a few days rest, the MKG-less series of losses during the West Coast road trip around Christmas and giving up over 60 points to one player twice all come to mind. That said, those reminders of the Era of Despair only heighten the excitement of the Era of Mediocrity's spoils. We will play a meaningful game on Wednesday with 6th place on the line. If we win at Washington, we take over 6th place with tiebreaker rights. If we hold on to that position, we get a winnable series with Toronto in the playoffs.
So, then, Wednesday's game at Washington becomes the most important game of the season. For a team that played in exactly zero meaningful games in the past two seasons, they've certainly made a jump.
But none of this would be possible without them proving their season narrative. At the beginning of the year, they looked like an NBA litmus test. Each sport has one or two of these teams - they beat up on bad teams and struggle to beat good teams. When healthy, the Bobcats played good teams well, but they generally lost to the elite teams in the league.
This week placed the Bobcats in Philadelphia and Cleveland and gave them a home game against Orlando - a bevy of bad teams. Cleveland being the only squad with a shot at the playoffs, this had to be a 3-0 week for Wednesday's game to decide control of the 6th seed.
Talking at all about the Philadelphia contest would assume that Philly's team tried in the game, and I won't honor that notion other than to say it defined the term "Blowout."
Orlando had beaten the Bobcats-Hornets a week before, but last week lost their starting center before playing in Charlotte. This left Al Jefferson (29/16) to severely dominate in the post while Kemba Walker recorded a triple-double. 91-80 doesn't really describe how much better Charlotte really was throughout the game.
The Cleveland game provided the biggest challenge against a desperate opponent, but, as mentioned earlier, the Hornets-Bobcats won in OT to complete a 3-0 week. That gives them multiple days of rest coming into the biggest game of the season.
That's how it will go from here on out. More than likely, they will be playing the biggest game of their year on any given night until their season ends.
The climb toward respectability involved a ton of struggle, but the real struggle begins anew Wednesday. The energy, the defense, and the scoring all have to improve to compete in the most grueling basketball tournament in the world. This team may not finish the climb, but they have gone farther than most expected them too. Charlotte and its fans are seeing an unfamiliar part of the mountain.
Crazily enough, they can still go up.