As the Endless Winter of our Discontent reaches the halfway mark, it is time for the Bobcats to host the Orlando Magic in the latest chapter of “The Rivalry That Never Was.” There was a lot of talk about the birth of a nasty rivalry after the Cats were swept in their very first and thus far only playoffs appearance. But the Bobcats fall from mediocrity happened so quickly that our hometown heroes weren’t suitable competition for the Magic. Now both teams are in the midst of rebuilding. The Magic represent one of the last best chances the Cats have to pick up a win in December. It is now official that the Cats have been playing the most difficult schedule in the NBA in December and things don’t get much prettier. There is no doubt at all that the league has sent a huge bucket of lemons to Time Warner Arena. The old saying is that the team needs to make lemonade. Prior to the game, Michael Kidd Gilchrist was honored for receiving the NBA Rookie of the Month Award. What better way to cap that celebration than to pick up a win? Instead however, the Cats had to settle for a banner night by Kemba Walker as the Magic continued their dominance over the Felines 107-98.
The Fighting Felines lived up to that nickname in the early going, running step-for-step with the Magic for the first half of quarter one. Once the clocked slid below the initial 6 minutes however, Orlando gradually began to build a solid lead. It was more of the same for Bobcats fans. Orlando, thanks to the wonders of scouting reports, were able to score almost at will by taking advantage of the holes that still plague the Charlotte defense. The Cats had perfectly reasonable shooting percentage, but were simply unable to maintain any kind of prevention at the other end of the court. I’ve carped on this quite a bit of late – largely because it’s the primary reason the team hasn’t managed to stay close to their opponents. We have to be realists about the situation. The next little bit has nothing to do with tonight’s game – at least not directly, at least. But it may help a bit to take a moment to look at the bigger picture. I you only care about the stats and the quarterly breakdown, or know the game well enough that the situation is already obvious, feel free to skip the next paragraph:
What’s wrong with the Bobcats? In a nutshell, it’s a defensive problem. The defensive intensity in basketball tends to focus on the ball. If the ball is on one side of the basket, all eyes and bodies face to that side. If a team is able to rotate the ball around to the other side of the basket (often called the weak-side) quickly enough, the defenders can be caught out of position. The defense has to rotate to cover the ball quicker than the offense can swing it around. The quickest way to get the ball over to the other corner is to pass it once directly through the area of the basket. It’s also the riskiest because the taller players are all in that area and there’s a good chance of a deflection or intercepted pass. Usually, the offense swings the ball around the perimeter. As the defenders adjust a couple of options open up. First, if defense is slow to rotate, it leaves the player in the other corner wide open for a shot. If the defense is too quick in the rotation, it often leaves the big men in the post open for a quick pass into the paint for a dunk or easy lay-in. Fixing the problem isn’t easy for any young team. For the Cats, it’s a nightmare. First, the guys are adjusting to a brand new coach. Second, they’ve just been together long enough to learn their offensive playbook and their basic defensive assignments. Add to these problems the fact that the guys are just getting used to one another. They’re still learning one another’s favorite shooting areas, one another’s strengths and weaknesses at each end of the court, and working on that most elusive of all things – chemistry. Now, in the midst of the hardest month of the season, they have to work out major adjustments to their defensive sets. Consider the coming week. The guys play 4 games in 5 nights and every one of them is on the road. This is the third week in a row in which they had to play 4 games. Apart from the sheer exhaustion of playing so often against stronger teams, when exactly are they supposed to practice and implement any “fixes” that Coach Dunlap and his assistants can teach them? It’s an ugly situation. It’s not going to change overnight. Honestly though, it’s not something that can be blamed on any of the guys OR the coaches. I guarantee that it’s every bit as frustrating to the players as it is for the fans. All we can do is be patient and enjoy the constant growth that is obvious to anyone watching our young Cats develop.
We now return you to our regularly scheduled recap:
By the time the first quarter ended, the Magic were firing on all cylinders and had built up a nice lead. The Cats, as usual, weren’t giving up the fight, but you could see the dark frustration forming in the eyes of the players as they stared at the possibility of an eleventh loss in a row. Gerald Henderson rejoined the starting lineup but was still adjusting to the moves of the “A-Team.” Quarter score; Bobcats 33, Magic 39.
Charlotte played a stronger second quarter in most aspects. In fact, it seems that lately the second tends to be the Bobcats’ strongest effort in most games. It’s kind of like the “Star Trek Syndrome.” The odd numbered movies (or in this case quarters) for the franchise have a tendency to suck, but the even numbered are more memorable. (Wrath of Khan anyone?) There are exceptions of course, but it just seems to be working out that way for the Cats. Several times they were able to scratch their way to within a single possession of the lead, but Orlando always managed to (barely) hold the guys at bay and creep back out by 6 or 7 points. As things wound down to the half the Bobcats had a pair of offensive fouls that allowed the Magic to build the advantage and momentum. As both squads retired to the locker rooms for second half adjustments and a breather Orlando still led by that 8 point margin, 56-48.
In many ways, this game seemed to be a carbon copy of most recent contests. Charlotte was on the way to scoring at or near to triple digits. We had a pair of players (Kemba Walker and Henderson) already in double-digit scoring and several others well on the way to joining them. As I mentioned already, after struggling in the first, the guys held their own in the second. Our most reliable scoring was coming from smaller perimeter players either taking long jumpers or by driving quickly into the paint. Production from our bigs was sketchy at best on the scoring end. Of particular concern for the hometown heroes was the fact that they were getting beaten rather handily (23-16) on the boards. I’m fairly sure that Coach Dunlap may have mentioned both the rebounding deficit and the lack of scoring by our bigs at least once or a thousand times before the team came out for the third.
The guards once again carried the lion’s share of the scoring burden in the opening minutes of the third quarter. Kemba poured in a trey and quickly charged the lane for another bucket in the paint but it largely amounted to basket-swapping until Bismack Biyombo got tough in the post to pick up his second basket and close the gap to 4 and Byron Mullens followed it up with a three-pointer of his own. Suddenly the lead was down to a single point and the crowd came to life. Luckily, Orlando chose that moment to get both cold and sloppy. Charlotte snared a rebound off a poorly-advised Magic shot; Kemba charged the court with what looked like every intention of driving the lane and tying the game. As the Magic defense collapsed around him though, he dropped the ball back to a wide open Jeffery Taylor who rained down the long-range bomb to give the Bobcats a 1 point lead.
Charlotte managed to eke out a lead of 2 before Orlando regained a semblance of rhythm and flow and seize control of the game once again. The quarter ended with the Magic back in the lead, but it was overall the best Bobcats’ third frame of late. As the final quarter began the Cats were well within range of their first December win; Magic 81, Bobcats 77.
Magic guard Jameer Nelson spent most of the fourth watching from the bench with 5 fouls, but the Bobcats were unable to take advantage of the edge. As the clock dipped below the 6 minute point Orlando still had a death grip on that 4-point lead. It was shortly after that moment the Kemba Walker Show began. He scored his second trey of the night with a pair of hands in his face. At the other end, he teamed up with Mullens, who blocked a dunk attempt and set Kemba up to steal the rebound. Three seconds later Kemba regained a one point lead for the Cats with yet another basket. Out of nowhere Kemba was within a point of topping his career scoring pinnacle and the Bobcats were just over 3 minutes away from victory.
The Cats were forced to call timeout however when perpetual Charlotte nemesis JJ Redick hit a trey to return Orlando to a 5-point edge with 2:47 remaining in the game. No sooner did the game resume than Big Baby Davis flattened Gerald Henderson to become the second Orlando player to hit the 5 fouls plateau. Sadly, the Cats hit a short cold snap and couldn’t manage to find the basket at the other end. Three empty possessions and a questionable call on a Biyombo steal allowed the Magic to open their lead up to 7 with 43 seconds to go. Who else but Kemba Walker drove the paint for a basket and a trip to the foul line? He made good from the stripe for a new career high of 32 points. At the other end the Magic duplicated the move with a dunk plus one of their own and the Cats simply ran out of clock. They will head to the west coast dragging an eleven-game losing streak in the baggage compartment. Final score Magic 107, Bobcats 98.
There were a lot of pyrrhic victories to be had but once again that 8th win remained as elusive as a greased pig in a pen full of armless men. Kemba Walker definitely earned himself a Trade Street Gamebreaker Award in a night that defined just how far he has come as a presence in the NBA. He led all scorers with a career high thirty-two points and seven assists in the losing efforts. Once again the Cats had at least 4 players scoring in double-digits (Kemba, Gerald, Byron, and Ramon) and put together a solid effort only to come up short once again to a team that was within our capacity to defeat.
Next up for the Cats is their Nightmare on The West Coast. Four games in five nights with the best opportunity for victory number 8 perhaps coming Tuesday night. After a pair of days off for travel and practice, the Bobcats will face the Los Angeles Lakers at the Staples Center. The Lakers have been under siege thus far and carry a rare losing record at 10-14. The “Boo Birds” have been out in force in La-la Land of late and a victory against Kobe and Co. has always been just the medicine for ailing Bobcats. Let’s cross our fingers and hope for the best.
As a final thought this was, in the end, just a basketball game. Events in Connecticut this week reminded us of just how painful things can be in our modern and “civilized” world. Please join me, in whatever way is appropriate to your personal beliefs, in taking a moment or two during holiday preparations to pray for - or send sympathetic thoughts to - the families of the poor children and adults with broken hearts and bleeding souls in the aftermath of such a horrific tragedy. May God help them to cope and heal all of their hearts, and ours as well.