We just watched the end of the Bobcats. Charlotte could have drawn the Bulls - an injured though resilient team. They could have drawn the Pacers - a team shook; full of halfway crooks. They could have drawn the Raptors - a young, beatable team.
Instead, they drew the Heat, the only team in the East that Charlotte cannot beat. And while beating them early on in Game One, the only thing that could not happen? It happened.
I won't guarantee a Game One victory if Al Jefferson had not torn his Plantar Fascia, nor will I even guarantee a victory in any of the other games. The Heat likely would have swept the Hornets-Bobcats in any scenario barring an injury to LeBron James.
That said, the end of Game One never would have gone down like that.
Without Jefferson, this offense is lost - a child in lawn seats at a James Taylor concert searching fervently for its parents. While Kemba Walker came out gunning and Al braved through a shot to keep him playing despite being obviously gimpy, Charlotte had to rely on too many bad shots and long, empty possessions to contend. Any team in the playoffs would have beaten them in the 4th quarter on Sunday, even Atlanta.
Still, the fans will admire this team. Even down 20, Charlotte fought and scrapped until the overwhelming weight of their deficit finally forced them to submit. Sad camera footage of Jefferson, his downtrodden face staring into the middle distance, popped up on social media and Bobcats-Hornets fans groaned in unison. His lifeless expression, his hands folded, his awkward, limping gait as he left the floor to Glenn Frey's "The Heat is On," these understandable responses tore at the heartstrings of a city that learned to love a flawed team.
The Heat's strategy after Al's obvious struggle only slightly changed. Obviously, a healthy Dwayne Wade - since he skipped most of the season to stay healthy (yeah, prove he didn't) - and LeBron James took the lion's share of shots while Erik Spoelstra played James Jones as a stretch power forward to keep busy hands like Josh McRoberts and Cody Zeller from disrupting Wade and James' dominant drives to the paint. Jones made the Bobcats pay for nearly every double team and killed any momentum Charlotte had built with Walker's beautiful play to start the third quarter.
Defensively, once Al disappeared, the Heat threw multiple defenders, Norris Cole/Mario Chalmers coupled with James, on Walker at the top of the key. Walker, during the critical times in the second half, struggled to get to the rim and to get his shot off. While his numbers may look fine, he also disappeared during the tough stretch that saw Miami pull away. The fact that they paid so much attention to Walker enhances his impact on the game. He came out of the locker room ready to take the slack that Jefferson obviously left, but the Heat's talent and size crushed that spirited attempt.
To say, as many analysts did/will, that Miami "went to another level" to beat Charlotte rings totally absurd. Al, pre-injury, abused every big man on the floor. The team played generally well until a Miami spurt post-Al injury. Miami had a crazy foul differential, the best player in the world, Wade's remarkable recovery from the litany of fake injuries he's had all year AND an injury to the best post player in the East and still had to go hard for part of the fourth to bury the 7th seed.
No, I won't guarantee a Bobcats victory if Al had stayed healthy. But I will guarantee this: Not one of these games would have been a blowout with a healthy Bobcats club playing this series.
This sweep will prove nothing about the Heat. They will win just as they were supposed to, and decisively. But for one glorious quarter the world got to see the Bobcats-Hornets team that played in the second half of the season. They saw the team that should have beaten the Pacers last night, or the team that should have high-fived after winning in Toronto. Fans saw a team with a rookie head coach that drew the worst possible playoff assignment (0-16 now against the Bron-Wade-Bosh Heat), lost their best offensive weapon and still played with the valor and conviction that defined their season.
The casual fan will shrug Charlotte off and submit that they sucked anyway. New fans will always have Josh McRoberts becoming a New God and Kemba's crossover on Jones. But the loyalists know that at their best, this final Bobcats team should be remembered as an armada. Not one that won a war, but one that battled until the last boat went down. The next three games will look bad - really bad - but these tattered ships will sail again.
On Sunday, we watched the end, but in name only.