Had the regular season ended Wednesday, the Bobcats would have been an amazing story; finishing top six in the East and over .500 with a real possibility at a series win. Unfortunately, the schedule never ends. The NBA calendar year is a terrifying marathon that outlasts all known possibilities. The infinite trudge toward the end claims all hope and rusts even the well-oiled hinges on the gates to prosperity.
For example, Washington had every reason to crush the Bobcats-Hornets last Wednesday. Revenge on their mind and playing at home, the Wizards played a phenomenal third quarter, took the lead and looked poised to put a cap on their own nice turnaround season as the most likely sixth seed in the Eastern Conference.
Earlier this year, Charlotte would never have bounced back from such a terrible showing in the third. They had been dismal in 4th quarters: unable to score, unable to stop the three and unable to stop good players from making plays. The second half of the season produced much better results, though. Despite injuries and a lack of depth at key positions, the Bobcats-Hornets played their best basketball of the year in the second half.
John Wall, silent against Charlotte all year, came alive and the return of Nene Hilario made Al Jefferson's night tougher than expected. Nene consistently, and with lots of team defense help, pushed Jefferson outside of his comfort zone when he posted up and Wall neutralized Kemba Walker quite well after allowing a hot start early on. The fourth quarter looked like a lost cause for Charlotte, as it had so many times earlier in the year.
That's the way the season works, though. Good teams get better.
Using Steve Clifford's constant preaching of ball reversal, Charlotte snapped out of a half-long funk in the fourth with long threes from Gerald Henderson, Walker (well contested though it was) and a nice turnaround jumper from Jefferson to allow Charlotte to force overtime.
That's when Washington went ice cold. Charlotte didn't shoot particularly well at any point of the second half, but they did enough during the Wizards' 0-7 start in OT to pull away. A win moved them to sixth in the East, with a tiebreaking 3-1 record against the Wizards. Everything went so well, in fact, that pundits on ESPN even shouted out Jefferson during halftime of a different game. The team had a benchmark win and a new reason to believe in a longer postseason run.
Then they went to Boston. The Celtics played without Rondo, came off of a wretched road trip and stood in the wake of a nine-game losing streak. They had no reason to win. Tanking their season to look for a better draft pick, they rested a core of veterans hoping to compete but not too well.
They still won.
To Charlotte's credit, they were missing their point guard as well. The NBA season provides so much continuity in its long grind, that missing a key player can alter your DNA so violently that nothing makes sense. Walker does not defend well, but Charlotte could not stop anyone at the point all night without him. He does not run the offense like a pass-first point guard, but the ball seemed to never get into the right hands all night.
Walker is nursing a few small injuries as most players do after 77 games. His return will be very soon, so nothing to worry about, but his absence hurt more than it should have. A Washington victory vaulted them right back into sixth with a game lead and only three to go.
Completing (finally!) their last back-to-back of the season, Charlotte allowed a Philly team replete with failures to hang around for a whole game. Luke Ridnour, Walker's replacement, played valiantly, but the team looked offensively lost most of the night without Walker. They won, but they looked exhausted and beaten still.
That reflects on how tight the team plays together when healthy. Any injury at this point will likely murder any kind of chance at a playoff series victory. As of now, the Heat still lurk as a first-round possibility, which would be an unmitigated disaster and a definite sweep. The Pacers could draw the Bobcats, which could mean a win or two in the playoffs for the first time in Bobcats history. But the sixth spot could mean avoiding them and playing either the Bulls or - please please please - the Raptors, two beatable teams.
The last two games of the season - a soul-crushingly long season - have arrived. They pose an important question for the team. Are the playoffs enough? Or does this team have a desire to make the run they were built for? They play two playoff-caliber squads to finish - at Atlanta and home against Chicago. They gotta hope for a Wizards loss. They need Walker next week. The need some help. The Bobcats can still be an amazing story, they just need to win and get a little luck.
Every amazing story needs a little luck, even the agonizingly long ones.