Not sure what these guys see, but they didn't want to get any closer to it.
I'll admit it. If anyone had told me that we would have our first chance to surpass the entire win total of last season before the Thanksgiving leftovers were gone I'd have been skeptical. If I had the chance to make a bet against someone saying the Cats would be shooting for their second three game winning streak by that same date I'd have asked the person if they were willing to share whatever they'd been smoking. Nevertheless, when Atlanta steps out onto the Time Warner Cable Arena court they will be facing a resurgent Charlotte team that has given the rest of the conference something to worry about.
The game itself started as most others have this season with the Cats establishing an early lead, but failing to sustain it for long. In the middle section of the quarter the Hawks went on a 13-0 run. As has so often been the case, Coach Dunlap found the solution by glancing down the bench and giving Ramon Sessions the nod. Moments after entering the game, Ramon and Kemba Walker began to take control of the Bobcats efforts. Sessions used his stutter-step skills to get Anthony Morrow to commit a pair of fouls in a hurry. The Hawks, able to score almost at will in the early going suddenly had to use almost the entire shot clock to find an open look. This enabled the Bobcats to stay within 6 as the clock expired. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist though, committed a rookie foul on Devin Harris' quarter-ending bomb setting up 3 free throws with less than a second remaining. The good news is that Harris was only able to sink 1 of his 3 freebies and what could have been close to a double-digit deficit ended up a painful, but survivable Hawks lead of 30-23.
Now, a lot of the time in the NBA the scores are actually deceiving. The halftime score of this particular felines/birdies matchup is one of the best examples of this I've seen in a while. The second quarter seemed to be all Hawks. They spent most of the quarter out-hustling, out-stealing, and out-shooting our hometown heroes. In fact, their points from turnovers margin of 15-8 had the Cats reeling. Charlotte spent much of the frame trailing by double-digits – at times by as many as 14. But as the teams entered the final stretch the Bobcats caught fire, launching 5 treys including 3 from rapidly blooming Jeffery Taylor to (partially) make up for their 10 turnovers. Although Charlotte spent all but roughly 125 seconds of the quarter getting slaughtered, the half arrived with the Cats actually outscoring Atlanta for the quarter and shaving a point off the Hawks lead. Taylor beat on the Hawks like they owed him money and the score at the half was much closer than it had a right to be with Atlanta still on top 57-51.
At the midpoint, 4 out of the 5 of the Bobcats starters were knocking on the double-figure scoring door. Kemba, Jeffery, and MKG each with 9 and Mullie right behind with 8. High scorer for the Bobcats though was Ramon, coming off the bench with 10. On the other side of the court it was pretty easy to see that the key to the second half for Charlotte was going to be in slowing down Al Horford who had raced off to 16 points and 7 boards – noteworthy stats for an entire game, let alone a single half. I tweeted the idea of having Diop climb up onto the Jumbotron with a hunting rifle, but they went with a different strategy. Just as well. If Diop shoots rifles anything like he does free throws there was a fair chance he'd accidentally pick off Gerald Henderson behind the bench.
Another peculiar thing about NBA hoops is the way that karma eventually wins the day. In the NFL they make a lot of noise about how best v worst doesn't really apply because "on any given Sunday" one team can shock another. In pro baseball of course, "it ain't over 'til it's over" and in the NHL... well, they're usually on strike nowadays so who can say? But in the NBA karma is king. In the third quarter it took roughly 5 seconds for the Hawks to shrug off the Bobcats half-ending run. For the first 10 minutes of the quarter it was all Hawks. They streaked out to a 15-point lead and the Bobcats seemed powerless to do anything. Funny thing though: with a minute and a half left, the Bobcats suddenly realized that their name ain't "Earl." Once again, they went on a tear, ripping the lead to shreds and coming to within 4 before some lazy defense allowed Atlanta to score at the buzzer. After 3 the deficit was the same as at the half with Atlanta up 80-74.
I had to wonder. How demoralizing is it to control virtually every aspect of a game only to wind up unable to stretch a lead because of last-minute flurries of frenzied effort by the "allegedly" weaker opponent? How does a team react to seeing a massive lead evaporate because of a 13-4 run from the same group that has been your doormat the rest of the time? More importantly, would the Bobcats have enough left in the tank to not only prevent the Hawks from running all over them again in the 4th, but also give them the energy to retake a lead they hadn't seen since the first quarter?
Well, the fourth started with two bits of bad news. Atlanta once again stretched out that lead to double-digits and the Time Warner throng fell silent as Bismack Biyombo turned his left ankle and headed straight for the locker room. Coach Dunlap surprised the house by putting his smallest group on the court against some of Atlanta's tallest trees. The sole Charlotte exception was Brendan Haywood. Brendan had been having a fine shooting night – on those rare occasions when he chose to shoot, that is. At a time when he would seem to be the best scoring option, he was shooting 4/5 for 8 points. MKG quickly came back on the court but just as quickly picked up his fifth foul of the evening. As the clock slid below three minutes and began to loom large as Bobcats Enemy #1, the Hawks were cruising along with a twelve-point lead and it seemed that Charlotte had no defensive answers. You can't mount a comeback without strong stops at the other end and, apart from spurts at the end of the quarters, the Hawks largely scored at will. Once again, the Cats began showing signs of life with consecutive steals, but each time they failed to convert them into points. After that it was largely a matter of letting the clock expire. Atlanta sails to a ten-point victory with the final tally being 101-91.
For the Bobcats, Ramon Sessions led the scoring with 22 points but that wasn't enough to offset the 26 that Al Horford pounded into the net. In fact, if I were planning to give out any awards for this game it would be to Horford for the Bobcats Bal... uh Backbreaker Award. No matter what Coach Dunlap tried, Horford managed to keep the Cats back on their heels for most of the evening.
It's all good though. The felines will board the plane tonight and fly to Washington to finish up their latest home/away back to back tomorrow against the Wizards. The Wizards are winless thus far this season and are presently "Most Likely To Wind Up With A Worse Winning Percentage Than Last Season's Bobcats" in the NBA Yearbook. While I feel for the poor Wizards fans, I'll likely be physically ill if the Bobcats give Washington a win. Cross your fingers y'all. If the Cats are for real they should have little trouble demolishing the Wizards. There's nothing like a road win to wash out the bad taste of a tough loss down on Trade Street.