If there is anything that comes close to being a “sure thing” on the positive side of the Bobcats ledger this season, it’s a victory against the Toronto Raptors. With a knee flare-up limiting DJ Augustin to minimal minutes though, the final result was anything but a guarantee. Before we actually jump in to the recap though, am I the only one who finds that fake “Raptors” sign directly under each basket massively annoying? I keep expecting the players to plow through the thing on every drive to the basket.
The Cats came out hard in the early minutes, scoring the first three baskets, but then seemed to lose focus. This allowed the Raptors to find a rhythm and before you could say “lottery pick” the Felines found themselves in a hole 13-17. As has frequently been the case however, as the seconds came into the game to spell the starters the Bobbies began to reassert themselves and were soon trading baskets (and the lead) with Toronto. A last-second near miss by Edward Najera cemented the score at 22-24 Raptors at the close of the first.
Things started to look a bit bleak in the second quarter as the Cats seemed to get lulled into “go through the motions” mode and very gradually the Raptors crept back out to a 5-point lead. Coach Silas sent Augustin out for a shift and suddenly it was the Toronto players that seemed mesmerized as Deej began blowing by them untouched for open lay-ups. Sadly, the condition was only temporary as a play stoppage forced DJ to stand still long enough for the Raptors to realize he was on the court and the Raptors came back to life. For the remainder of the quarter Toronto managed to handle anything the Cats threw at them well enough to maintain a lead of 5 points or so before another momentary lull in Bobcats focus resulted in their briefly trailing by 9 before a pair of Charlotte free throws ended the half at 46-53. During the quarter, Coach Silas did manage to pick up yet another technical foul protesting a no-call when a pair of Toronto players attempted to skin Bismack Biyombo alive. It’s almost a pity the season will almost certainly end before Coach manages to become the star of next season’s “respect the game” league video. Still, it won’t be for lack of effort on his part. It’s almost like having Jax back in town, isn’t it?
The third quarter of the game ranks for me as one of the longest quarters of basketball I have ever watched. Oh, it ran for the standard 12 minutes, it just didn’t seem that way. Players for both sides shuffled around on the court and most of the time the only players moving at all seemed to be the man with the ball and his defender. During the first seven minutes of the quarter both teams combined scored a sum total of 16 points. The interminable drag of the quarter wasn’t helped by a lengthy “clear path foul” review by the refs that resulted in still more moseying and milling by the two teams. I would have checked my channel guide to be sure I hadn’t accidentally switched to auditions for extras on AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” but the action wasn’t quite animated enough to qualify. The “clear path” as eventually upheld, which allowed the Cats an opportunity to shave the Raptor lead to a single point, but turnover number 10 by the Bobcats set the Felines back into a 6-point deficit. During a matchup between these two teams earlier in the season the Raptors made a rather serious tactical error and allowed the Cats to keep the score close despite multiple opportunities to open up a healthy lead. As I recall, the game was a similar listless performance by the Fighting Felines through most of the game, but the score was close enough in the final minutes that Charlotte was able to take the victory with a burst of energy as the clock wound down. As the third drew to a close it seemed as if the Raptors had learned little from that experience. I don’t know if Tyrus Thomas stepped up his energy level or if everyone else slowed down to make it appear that way. T-Time managed to keep the Cats in things until he hit the floor hard after committing a rather ill advised open court foul. He was helped off the court with less than half a second remaining. Thomas’ attempt to convince the coaching staff that he was okay was fruitless and as Ben Uzoh stepped to the line to miss a pair of free throws, Tyrus was helped to the locker room. For future reference Tyrus, the correct response to “how many fingers am I holding up” was not, and never will be, “Wednesday.” Final score at the end of three, Bobcats 64, Raptors 71.
As the fourth began, the lack of both ball and player movement on the part of Charlotte actually gave the Raptors time to begin double-teaming Kemba Walker and Augustin out at the three-point line. The “energy conservation” offense of the Bobcats actually began to bear fruit however. The Raptor defenders began racking up a rather alarming number of fouls away from the ball from literally running over Charlotte players standing around in the general area of the basket. Several Toronto players were in enough foul trouble to force them to allow Cats shooters open looks at the basket. As a result, the Bobcats started exhibiting more aggression on offense and began penetrating the lanes with a greater success rate. With a sliver under 3 minutes left in the game DJ Augustin got fouled on a drive and banged his left knee hard on the court on his way down. Nonetheless, the Bobcats cut the lead to a single basket on a 6-0 run. Tyrus Thomas was unavailable to step in and spark the Bobbies in the closing minutes due to continued swelling in his jaw, but Byron Mullens, who had been having himself a very respectable night to begin with, suddenly went supernova. First, he blocked a shot at the defensive end and then poured in a pair of jumpers from 22 and 25 feet respectively to bring the Cats to within a single point before the seemingly unstoppable Andrea Bargnani drained a trey of his own. Seven seconds later, Deej raced up the court and answered back with yet another three-point bomb and one of the most boring games of the season came to life with a vengeance. Suddenly it was open warfare on the court with 30 seconds left and Bargnani dropped in his 30th points of the night to bring the lead back to three. The Bobcats burned their final timeout and Toronto wisely opted to double-team Augustin on the perimeter. Deej managed to dump the ball to a wide-open Mullens at the top of the arc, but Mully fired off an airball, forcing the Cats to foul. Bargnani made both shots from the stripe and the Charlotte Bobcats winning streak against the Raptors finally ended.
It seems redundant to call this another heartbreaking loss as we creep toward the end of a season that has already shown us 43 of them, but the Cats were truly in it until the final 10 seconds. We’re already eliminated from any chance of a miracle run to the playoffs, so now it’s just a matter of deciding how many of the bingo balls in the lottery machine will have little Bobcats logos on them. Most “casual” fans have already cut their losses and begun looking to next season. Speculation and rosterbation are already spreading like wildfire as Charlotte enters the off-season with an excellent chance for a future superstar rookie in the draft and some money to burn in the free agency marketplace.
But those are the casual fans. For those of us truly devoted to our Fighting Felines, the season continues and clichéd or not, this was indeed a rough loss. I will present Byron Mullens with a very well deserved Trade Street Gamebreaker Award for a phenomenal effort in a losing battle. Obviously more comfortable playing at the 4, Byron posted a double double tonight with 20 points and an impressive 14 rebounds. Look to the future and players that have yet to arrive all you wish, but this young man is a current flesh and blood representation of the future of NBA ball in Charlotte. Regardless of the final score, he, Kemba Walker, Gerald Henderson, and to a lesser extent, Bismack Biyombo still provide reason enough to head down to Time Warner Cable Arena and check out the future as it dawns down on Trade Street.