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.
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.
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.
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.
Somewhere in the history of the Bobcats-Hornets must be the most important win ever. I'll let the people who've followed them all along figure it out, since my years in New York City left me with box scores and lowlight reels.
For me, Wednesday's win over the Pacers left me beaming like no other win ever has.
In a unique performance, Charlotte rebounded from Lebron James' unbelievable 61-point output to trounce the team with the league's best record. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the most visible of a bevy of defenders torched by the best player in basketball nights earlier, tortured Paul George on and off the ball. Al Jefferson punished Roy Hibbert for playing off of his jumper. Cody Zeller has been contributing and played one of the better games of his young career. And Kemba snapped his recent struggle to join in the fight.
The singular focus this team sought and achieved against the Pacers may not be duplicated the rest of the year. There were mitigating factors: the national media focus on LeBron's night, Paul George has been struggling and so have the Pacers of late, and the Pacers were on the second night of a back-to-back. This would be an easily discountable win, except, the perfectly executed team effort proved so vindicating and so indicative of the future of this franchise. It seems more clear now than ever before what kind of team Charlotte can expect.
And, of course, the struggles against two other likely playoff teams muddled that clarity. Memphis hammered Charlotte, exacting revenge from the best defensive game the Bobcats-Hornets had all season just two weeks ago. Memphis hit the three and hit it well, leaving a good defense in tatters.
And of course, the LeBron game crushed any idea of elite status. No good defense gives up 61 points to any one man - especially not two, right? Carmelo Anthony's epic day in MSG a couple of months ago already exposed the deep, hidden secret in the Bobcats-Hornets shaky armor.
If you can hit midrange jumpers, you will beat Charlotte. This comes from a dearth of big defenders. I've gone over the problematic power forward position that Charlotte hides well with exact rotations on double teams and an overall team ethos of protecting the rim. Covering the small forward position usually falls into the hands of Kidd-Gilchrist, but he struggles with big, bruising small forwards. So does the rest of the league. Forwards aren't usually 6-8/275 and all muscle and quick and don't have a devastatingly accurate shooting percentage from 18 to 25 feet.
What makes Kidd-Gilchrist a good defender also inhibits him against Melo and Bron. He can step off of most players to help the lane and shift the team defense focus to the lane. This helps against point guards and slashing big men. He has quick hands and jumps passing lanes incredibly well. All this and he can recover to his man quickly enough to prevent open shots.
If you watch on any given night, Kidd-Gilchrist will hop around in three different spots - one to deny ball entry to the post, one to create havoc in a normal passing lane and break up the flow of a possession and then one to prevent his defender from getting space enough to make him pay for being out of position so much.
That does not work against LeBron James.
Time and again, James played Kidd-Gilchrist to the lane and scored because, quite simply, he could. James remains the best player in basketball because of his superior skills with and without the ball, and placing Kidd-Gilchrist in the "bad defender" category because the best player in the world crushed him stings for fans who watch him nightly.
Same goes for the team defense. In a win against Cleveland this week, the Bobcats-Hornets lead for most of the game, used Jefferson's overpowering presence, and did what they had been doing for weeks before they played this tough part of the schedule.
For Charlotte, the road gets easier now. They went 2-3 while playing four very good opponents - sorry, Cleveland. The next few games shape up nicely. Washington has been good lately but essentially have Charlotte's milieu. They beat bad teams and struggle against good ones. Denver and Minnesota are winnable games. Milwaukee's pathetic record speaks for itself. After that, they get some playoff teams that will test the new boundary the Bobcats-Hornets strive for, the one that thrashing the Pacers may have gained them. As the Ric Flair adage goes: To be the best, you gotta beat the best.
Charlotte's march toward respectability labors on after a win for the Era of Mediocrity's still-thin annals.
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.
There's nothing quite like watching Anthony Tolliver hit a 3 during Katy Perry's "Eye of the Tiger" at a redneck bar. Trust me on this.
The song did not fit a bumbling 4th quarter or the team as a whole, but it did seem fitting to smile at a team that officially left behind the Era of Despair that left fans distraught the past few seasons.
In a week where the Bobcats-Hornets were buyers (!) at the trade deadline, solidified their playoff hopes with a 4-0 record and beat the pizza all 4 times, the oddest part came while I drank alone at a Greensboro bar. No one played music through the first three quarters, so I heard the smattering of conversations and billiards shots while Charlotte looked the most dominant they had been all year, against a decent New Orleans Pelicans squad.
Then, the 4th quarter began and for some reason a patron played "Eye of the Tiger." While the Pelicans made a nice run and nearly beat the Bobcats-Hornets, Charlotte won on the strength of Al Jefferson's prolific night - 33 pts/10 reb on 30 shots.
That kind of night had become commonplace for the first week after the all-star break. Jefferson dominated a home-and-home/back-to-back against the Detroit Pistons earlier in the week with 32 and 29 points, respectively.
"[Jefferson]'s a bad matchup for the entire league right now," interim Pistons coach John Loyer said. "We knew exactly what we was going to do - they ran the same plays they always run - but there's not much you can do to stop him."
Having scored 30 or more in 7 of the last 12 games, Loyer echoed the sentiments of most teams that have had to face Jefferson in the past few weeks. Since Kemba Walker's ankle injury, he has been a monstrous offensive force.
That said, games against New Orleans and Memphis provided the first glimpse at truly defensive centers that Charlotte has seen in awhile. He handled the Anthony Davis, Greg Steimsma and Alexis Ajinca combinations the Pelicans threw at him, but the double teams took him out of the late-game collapse that nearly cost the Bobcats-Hornets the game.
So, then, what will happen against the league's elite teams? Memphis used a combination of Jefferson's tired legs and the NBA's 2013 Defensive Player of the Year to deaden Jefferson's effect on the game. The Grizzlies limited Jefferson's shots and effectiveness, leaving him 2-13 (his lowest shot output since a loss to the Suns before the break) with only 6 points.
Without Jefferson's normal output, Kemba Walker had the best game since his return from injury weeks ago. His 31 points kept the offense afloat, though the team sputtered in the 2nd and 3rd quarters. The stage set, the team had a choice in the 4th: play big or lose a heartbreaker like have so often.
The first few weeks of the season showed a problematic pattern: Charlotte could put their numbers up in the first three quarters before fading in the 4th. They did not look like a playoff team and questions mounted as to Jefferson's ability to play with another bad team.
Those questions have faded away as Charlotte plays their best ball of the season. Walker and Jefferson anchor the offense, while Michael Kidd-Gilchrist leads a team defense that currently sits top-5 in points allowed on defense. Both of those showed in Saturday's Memphis game: the defense held the Grizzlies to under 90 points while the offense hit their free throws late to seal a victory.
Now, the team looks to integrate two new bench players - Charlotte acquired backup guards Luke Ridnour and Gary Neal for Ramon Sessions and seldom-used Jeff Adrien. Neal's reputation as a three-point specialist will be welcomed on a team that attempts and hits very few of them. Ridnour will play the Sessions backup role and while Sessions played some minutes with Walker, Sessions and Ridnour look startlingly similar on paper.
The only real problem with losing Sessions comes with his propensity for getting to the free-throw line in limited minutes. Ridnour will not do that, but he will run the second unit admirably. Neal allows Kemba a running mate that can hit threes on fast breaks though Neal has limited ball-handling capabilities.
The Bobcats-Hornets bought at the trade deadline. And they went 4-0 in a week. They have a long break to acclimate two new players to a good defense and a sputtering offense. Jefferson is rolling at the highest level of his career. The Bobcats climbed to 6th in the playoff chase, earning their spot to play Toronto in the playoffs if they hold all positions over the next few weeks.
The schedule gets very favorable for Charlotte, but first, they will see a real test over the next four games. They get the Spurs (albeit without Tony Parker), the Thunder, the Heat and the Pacers next. Then, they get a series of losing-record teams (minus another game at Memphis) almost stretching to the playoffs. If they win their fifth in a row at San Antonio, they will likely get a little buzz before they have to play complete playoff teams.
The buzz, if it comes, will be well deserved. They may not have "Eye of the Tiger" level status quite yet, but a 4-0 week and some added weapons definitely solidifies them as a team with a real shot at not only the playoffs, but actual respectability. They are playing their best ball after the All-Star break in a position where that matters. They have a good stretch coming and if they stay healthy, that stretch could even last until the second-round of the playoffs.
The Era of Despair gone, the Bobcats-Hornets have reason to believe that mediocrity no longer looks otherworldly.
Now, they begin to storm the castles of respectability.
Charlotte arrived at the all-star break with their mission still intact: remain in the hunt for the playoffs. Just the fact that that mission remained a possibility made this half-season a remarkable success.
Since the destruction of the Gerald Wallace-Tyson Chandler era, Charlotte spent several seasons at the bottom of the league including recording the worst season (in winning percentage) in the history of the NBA. Bobcats-Hornets fans know that. But it bears repeating, since basketball fans and experts cannot deny that a largesse of losses can improve teams just as much as free agency and a playoff berth with the upcoming draft.
The Virginia Slims approach to this season - "You've come a long way, Bobcats" - assumes the fans are happy with a losing record so long as the team no longer plays the worst basketball in recorded history. Fan reactions on message boards and on websites have a generally positive vibe. Most comments hold specific weak points - like the power-forward position - accountable instead of institutional weakness.
This shift should have been the point of the Michael Jordan regime all along. Jordan's control of the team should have ushered in an era where decent free agents and middle-round draft picks made for a consistently watchable team. Charlotte may not have been championship material by now, but certainly we would not be cheering mediocrity as though it were a step in the right direction.
That said, history's concreteness spurns the fans. They cannot change the worthlessness of the past three or so seasons, and they have every right to look toward a brighter future.
The Bobcats-Hornets 23-30 record places them 8th in the Eastern Conference - a half-game ahead of Detroit for a playoff berth. While 23-30 seems feeble, the team played without one of its two best offensive players for long stretches of the season. When fully intact, the team showed a solid defense and a below average offense meshing to challenge most good teams and beat most bad teams. Every team has inexplicable losses, and the Bobcats-Hornets have their fair share.
After a phenomenal game against the Mavericks on Tuesday, they put up an awful performance against the Nets on Wednesday. Having the most back-to-backs in the league and playing their worst ball on the second night of those back-to-backs has hindered the team greatly. Charlotte's record on those second nights stands at a horrid 3-12 with an average of 87 points per game. The schedule of those games has been mercifully mixed, but getting the Pacers, Bulls, Heat, Suns and Nets on those nights may as well lead to scheduled losses.
One particularly brutal stretch of games really cemented Charlotte's fate for the first half. After Christmas, the team dropped eight of nine games during a long road trip when the team stood on the cusp of relative respectability. They started the trip with a record of 14-15 only to drop to 15-23. Since then, they have played .500 ball even through the loss of Kemba Walker to injury for a few games.
Without that stretch, this team looked like a contender to make the playoffs and draw a seed favorable to them winning in a series. That's still very possible with a favorable second-half schedule coming their way.
The driving force behind watching this team, despite the scheduling foibles, injuries and that awful post-holiday run, lies in the strength of the players and coaching staff. Al Jefferson's run from January until now has been nothing short of extraordinary. Walker's improvements continued despite early season struggles and an ankle injury. While other young players have struggled with playing time and/or shot selection, Walker and Jefferson have carried the load. They provide a bright spot in a lulling offense. Jefferson leads the team in points per game, rebounds and blocks (20/10/1.2 respectively), and Walker leads in assists and steals. While his assist numbers don't really inspire fans too much, he scores 18 a game as a compliment and remains one of only two players that can consistently create his own shot.
Gerald Henderson's ongoing obsession with fadeaway baseline jumpers hinders my ability to compliment him, but he's scoring 15 a game and has been instrumental in early game possessions when the offense lacks energy. Anthony Tolliver leads the team in 3pt% and 3ptFGs, which speaks both to his role on the team and the team's need for a perimeter scorer. Josh McRoberts has played well in stretches and has developed a game that compliments Walker and Jefferson nicely when they play together. He shoots threes sometimes, but the effects of those threes have been linked to heart defects.
While Ramon Sessions struggled in Walker's absence, he continues to play the backup scoring guard role well. Head coach Steve Clifford uses both guards in a smaller lineup that looks and sounds delightful, but the numbers may say differently. When that Walker-Sessions happens, however, the eye test shows an offense more willing to attack the basket with an abundance of quickness.
That kind of attack has been lacking all season for the Bobcats-Hornets for a multitude of reasons. First and foremost, the lack of shooters that can create their own shots consistently keeps defenders from switching or doubling. The aforementioned lack of long-range shooters, allows those same defenses to collapse the lane whenever a player like Walker, Sessions or, to a lesser extent, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist attacks the lane.
While Jefferson commands double-teams from many squads, he cannot command them on every possession and the Bobcats know that. Coach Clifford loves ball rotation. In press conferences, he often mentions ball reversal as a means to an end. That end, of course, being a refusal of the Era of Despair when isolated players often jacked shots with little time left in a possession so often that it became the norm.
Clifford bounces around lineups a lot, though, trying to find the right mixes of shooting and attacking while keeping roles intact. He has repeatedly stranded Biyombo at the end of the bench despite his size and shot blocking ability, eschewing those skills for extra offense.
The need for offense leaves Kidd-Gilchrist's future in mild doubt. He's found himself with less minutes since returning from injury, though not completely castigated from the starting lineup. The team loves Kidd-Gilchrist, but the coaching staff might see a future less bright - something of a bother, even, seeing as how the organization picked him second over Bradley Beal (a need position) and all-star Damian Lillard (though he plays Walker's position).
Halfway through the season, the players expect a rotation that makes sense and a team poised to make a move. Jefferson said exactly that after the Mavericks win last week. The tinkering, though may yet serve some purpose.
Fans often believe they know what a team has before the season, but not too many predicted an eight-seed this far into the season*. Charlotte, despite their many foibles, has a real chance to discover their place in the league for a couple of years to come. No longer does the "are we a punching bag?" question hold merit. I've harped on the team's mediocrity as a plus before, and I'll do it more: This kinda rules.
The Bobcats-Hornets don't win the big ones all the time. They cannot win back-to-backs. They likely won't make a huge splash this year. The nagging and fairly wonderful sentiment remains, though.
You've come a long way, Bobcats.
*-Someone over at Rufus on Fire did, but I cannot remember which writer. For the record, I thought we'd be 10th in the East, which is, ugh, still a possibility.
Kemba Walker's confident stride onto the court in Oakland fooled me. He looked like he'd been playing as Charlotte's MVP for weeks, not Al Jefferson. As a fan, it heartened me to see his cockiness against one of the best guards in the NBA and one of the league's best offensive teams.
Once the game started, however, fan or no, Charlotte's real MVP destroyed the Golden State Warriors. Tallying another 30-point game and adding 13 rebounds, Jefferson evenly distributed punishment to a bevy of defenders. Andrew Bogut played too slow, Jermaine O'Neal bought the jabs and fakes and no one else the Warriors trotted out had to size or strength to handle him.
Earlier in the season, the Bobcats-Hornets may have tried to create their own shots instead feeding Jefferson again and again, but the recent injury to Walker forced Charlotte's hand.
During Jefferson's incredible run without Walker, the lineup change kept the best passer and shot creating guard out. Ramon Sessions, a more than capable backup, does not have the array of moves or the speed to create his own shot as prolifically as Walker, so Jefferson had to assume a more prominent role for the health of an already underwhelming offense. The results: Jefferson's numbers looked incredible minus a poor team performance in Phoenix last week.
In total, Jefferson went 12-22 from the field against Golden State for his 30 pts. Compare that to the numbers against the Walker-less games:
9-18 (22 pts) vs Toronto
12-23 (24 pts) vs Los Angeles (Clippers)
11-19 (33 pts) vs New York
15-26 (32 pts) vs Chicago
13-24 (35 pts) vs Denver
18-32 (40 pts) vs Los Angeles (Lakers)
4-15 (11 pts) vs Phoenix
Since Walker's return:
12-22 (30 pts) vs Golden State
12-21 (26 pts) vs San Antonio
Not much difference and minus the Phoenix outlier, all at or above 50 percent shooting. Though the sample size is extremely small, Charlotte looked to an established pattern in the past three weeks. They forced defenses to deal with their best player 20-30 times a game and lightened the load on the rest of the Charlotte offense.
When teams like Golden State and the Lakers figured out they did not have the players to compete with Jefferson, they double teamed him and hoped another player would beat them. Neither team had a real chance to double Jefferson with their personnel and coaching styles, so the Bobcats-Hornets advantage worked perfectly.
The San Antonio Spurs, on the other hand, had two strategies to keep Jefferson from tormenting them. Strategy No. 1, early in the game they played him straight up with Tim Duncan. That strategy failed miserably as Jefferson went 6-8 with 12 points in the first quarter. Strategy No. 2, sending in Boris Diaw to guard him from the front and force awkward passes toward the basket. This strategy proved more difficult for both offense and defense, but provided San Antonio one large advantage. Duncan's advanced age may not allow him to play 1-on-1 against a superior big man, but he still plays near-perfect help defense when protecting the basket. Jefferson's fourth quarter numbers differed dramatically after the adjustment, as he went 3-4 and two of those shots came after offensive rebounds/fast breaks.
San Antonio's Jefferson strategy relied on a heavy rotation of double teams and weakside help from a legendary defender, but the Bobcats-Hornets won't face that so much in the coming games. The Spurs have the option of switching strategies with a fantastic bench and Duncan. The Mavericks, Brooklyn, and a home-andhome split vs Detroit shapes up nicely for Jefferson to continue his dominant run.
Walker's return did not quell Jefferson's dominance, but his presence helped the 4th quarter offense immensely in the 104-100 loss. Without him, San Antonio could have pressured any ballhandler they wished - something they do often against teams they know make a lot of mistakes.
Charlotte eschewed a normal Sessions-Walker lineup late in the second half to focus on big men and three-point shooting. An Anthony Tolliver-Josh McRoberts-Al Jefferson squad with Walker and Henderson handling the ball paid off offensively as the Bobcats hung with one of the best teams in the NBA.
The defense, however, failed them time and again in pick-and-rolls and transition, leading to a career night for Patty Mills (32 pts, 6 Reb). That must improve against Dallas with Monta Ellis and Dirk Nowitzki awaiting them.
Walker must develop a relationship with Jefferson this season on pick-and-rolls. Jefferson's biggest weakness in his career has been defense, and Walker plays more pesky 1-on-1 defense than team defense, so both must overlook each other's flaws when playing teams that have multiple capable players in offensive sets. When the pick-and-roll worked as well as it did for the Spurs early, slip screens and step back jumpers - like Mills continually performed - become more readily available. If each game provided a narrative, this loss' would be a story of developmental mistakes. Great offensive execution can only carry a team so far if they falter against quick guards. Walker's return can help, but if he and Jefferson cannot perform well together on defense, their offense will not matter.
All that said, the Bobcats-Hornets' latest stretch against the Western Conference taught fans much about the team. Kemba Walker returned. The team proved competitive on the road and at home against solid squads. They went 3-2 in a series of games that could have defined them as despairingly bad once again. They could go 4-2 in that stretch with a win against Dallas.
Above all else, they defined Al Jefferson in Charlotte. This team now knows who its offensive leader has to be, and who they can rely on when opponent's make him their primary responsibility.
Jefferson may not be an All-Star or a candidate to give chase to LeBron or Kevin Durant. But his dominance this weekend could push Charlotte into the playoffs - they are currently 8th, the last playoff position in the East. If that happens, he'll be the MVP of an unlikely playoff team.
Leadership has its advantages.
The Hornets-Bobcats, weary from a week of West Coast games, lost to the Phoenix Suns on Saturday night. The game fell on the second night of a back-to-back in the middle of a West Coast swing. They played yet another game without their starting point guard and co-offensive team leader.
I could go on. Yet, as the myriad of excuses piled up for Charlotte's loss, one thing remained perfectly clear.
In a tough stretch, they had to have two wins over struggling teams without a stalwart player and they got them with distinctly different styles.
Wednesday's game against the Denver Nuggets could have doubled as a track event. The Nuggets thrive in fast-paced games and tend to score a ton against less-than-elite defenses. Charlotte, led by the latest in a series of Al Jefferson's unbelievable efforts, held Denver's running attack in check (a theme of sorts for Denver teams this week) while putting up a triple-digit scoring effort.
The win marked the first time in over a month that the team beat a .500 or better opponent on the road since they beat the Raptors in Toronto on Jan. 20 (Denver has since dropped to a game below .500, but we're looking for bright spots here).
Jefferson shined with a gaudy 35-11 stat line. Despite defensive deficiencies at the key - leading to a massive 33-point night for a usually subdued Randy Foye - the team held a very good offense to under 100 points. Injuries to starting guard Ty Lawson made a big difference, but remember that the teams had a level playing field in that regard.
The focus, though, should remain on Jefferson. He more than doubled the points output on any other player while shooting over 50 percent from the floor. To out this in perspective, Gerald Henderson scored 16 points while shooting 6-17. Jefferson's effectiveness is picking up other player's struggles and consistently outshining the other teams' double-teams and the waves of players sent at him.
His recent trail of destruction has left the announcers, the fans and the league in awe. To do it without a primary ballhandler places his recent run just under the much-publicized run of Kevin Durant.
While Durant has an arsenal of perimeter moves and one of the NBA's finest jumpers, Jefferson must rely on back-to-the-basket maneuvering and, for now, backup guards getting him the ball. Jefferson's scoring, while less flashy, is no less impressive against the kinds of defenders he faces on a night-to-night basis.
When he followed up his 35/11 performance with 40/18 against the Los Angeles Lakers, the minimal talk around the Bobcats-Hornets shifted from a nice run to Al Jefferson: All-Star. He abused Pau Gasol and the collection of stiffs the Lakers ran at him when Gasol failed. Jefferson tied his career high with 40, put up his 11th straight 20-point game and did it all shooting 18-32.
Jefferson played as the only option on the bulk of Charlotte's possessions and still shot well over 50 percent. That speaks both to his singular ability to get buckets and the Lakers inability to play anything resembling basketball with their depleted roster.
With the two wins, the Bobcats-Hornets moved into 8th in the East, which would guarantee them the right to lose 4 straight debilitating games to the Miami Heat. That said, they would lose those games in the playoffs. For a team that played exactly five meaningful games all of last season, these wins and this run without Walker marks a truly remarkable stretch.
That Charlotte lost to a good team the following night did little harm to their already impressive week. The team earned their listlessness. Jefferson scored only 10, thus ending his streak, but 35-40 points does not happen so often.
Big Al's week did not end up in an All-Star nod, but he proved to be part of the discussion. Charlotte's week did not end undefeated, but they weaseled their way into the playoff picture. All this and they improved to 4-3 without Kemba Walker on the floor. Walker's return can't come soon enough with a particularly tough set of games coming up, but the Bobcats-Hornets already know what they have to do.
With no all-stars, missing starters and the odds stacked against them, they have to persevere.