Coach Dunlap sends up an unanswered prayer...
Fans coming into Time Warner Cable Arena for the game against the 76ers were met with a situation that’s become quite familiar to them. The team was coming home from a pair of tough road losses (a humiliating blowout and a nail-biter) to face a team with a better record. The big difference this time is that the first floors of the rebuilding of the Bobcats have been completed early and our Cats are able to run with any team in the league. Prior to the game, one of the keys Coach Dunlap mentioned when planning for the win was to play stifling defense to prevent the Sixers from jumping out to an early lead. This, he said, would give the guys time to figure out what would work well against Philly and pick them apart. So how well did our Cats follow the advice of their rookie coach? Can I get a witness? Oh wait… I WAS a witness. Well, let me tell ya…
The Sixers seemed to believe that if they could open up an early lead that the young Felines would just roll over. No such luck. Each time Philly started to get into a rhythm, the Cats defense would clamp down and held the Sixers to a one-and-out. Philly players learned early that keeping up with the Bobcats fast break would be tougher than they may have heard. In the early going the Bobcats scored 10 fast break points while the 76ers were forced into a half-court offense each time the gained possession. Jeffery Taylor launched one of his “no-human-should-do-dat!” dunks that brought the house to its feet. It happened so fast that even the Sixers bench was looking at the replay on the Jumbotron to figure out what made the score change. Once opening gambits played out the teams started trading baskets and the clock expired with the Cats one possession down, 27-25.
As the second began, once again the Sixers made their best effort to run away from the Cats and managed to open up a seven-point spread. Once again, the Cats clamped down and climbed right back into things. Gordon came in and scored 5 in a hurry on a trey and a tough jumper. Bismack Biyombo, back with a vengeance, controlled the offensive boards and fought for every Bobcats miss. Even when he failed, you could see he was giving the 76ers bigs fits, pinning them under the hoop and preventing them from getting back into transition. Despite being double-teamed on the perimeter (and THAT’S what you call respect!) Ben Gordon continued to scorch the net and earn his minutes with a second three-pointer and twelve points in 9 minutes. When you add in the 3 assists he booked by finding the open man off the double-coverage, Gordon was a one-man wrecking crew at the offensive end. I’m fairly certain my official Bobcats nick for the man has become Ben “The Blowtorch” Gordon.
With five minutes remaining in the half, Philly tried once again for a fast break only to have Kemba Walker pick off the deep outlet pass. End result; another three points for the Blowtorch with a deep jumper from the corner. (Yeah, I’m liking the taste of that nick. What do y’all think?) With just over two remaining, the Cats brought their starters back and hit a small cold snap, allowing Philly to quietly slip out to a small lead. Byron Mullens became the first Charlotte player to get to the stripe and made good for four in a row. This allowed the Felines to stay in the hunt, as the Sixers seemed to finally find a way to crack the weak-side Bobcats defense and get some inside buckets. The teams headed to the locker room with Philly having doubled their small lead to four points, 54-50. In fact, the scoring for the two quarters was identical, 27-25 Philly.
Although his team had managed to play the opponents close, if Coach Dunlap had figured out a plan that would work well against the 76ers roster, he’d kept it to himself. Perhaps he planned to reveal it during the break. If not, statistically the final score would be 108-100 in favor of the Sixers. True story that nobody will care about – when I was a kid growing up in Boston I couldn’t understand why Philly’s basketball team was so popular in Celtics country. It turned out that all the orange “76” basketball signs I thought I was seeing belonged to Phillips 76 Conoco Oil. It wasn’t until 5th grade history I made the connection; Philadelphia… 1776… OHHHHHH! I’ll save my just as funny, “where the heck did they come up with the name “Knicks” story for another time. (I figured the owner thought of it while he was shaving or something) I will warn anyone thinking of starting to mock my childhood innocence by singing “The Way We Were” in advance – I DO pack heat. I’d freestyle some lyric, but there’s a reason why there aren’t any Native American thug-rappers on the chart.
Early in the second half, Kemba Walker took advantage of a Bismack pick and scored on one of his patented hesitation shuffle-step moves. The Cats still trailed, and it wasn’t the sort of play that tends to show up on a highlight reel, but I could watch the dude rawk that move all night long. It’s smooth enough that someone should mention it. It should also be mentioned that Brendan Haywood started to quietly build a nice little stat-line for himself as the game progressed, scoring a pair of buckets in the early minutes of the third quarter and keeping the Sixers wondering where Bobcats offense would be coming from next. It’s a benefit that the Bobcats have this season that hasn’t been mentioned very often. We may not have a breakout superstar scorer at present, but it’s the rare night when we don’t have at least four and often as many as 6 players in double-digits each game. That broad a scoring base can really force a defensive unit to keep on its toes. Unfortunately, the Philly offense continued to take advantage of some sluggishness in the Bobcats weak-side defensive rotation and with four and a half remaining opened up the first ten-point lead of the game. On the plus side, if you chose that moment to blink, you would have missed it. Once again the Cats defense clamped down and limited Philly to a long-range one-and-out offensive set. In fact, thanks to Kemba’s quick hands, the Cats cut the lead to 6 after a none-and-out steal and fast break. This was followed by a Jeffery Taylor steal and finishing three-pointer to hack the lead to a slender 3. More tough defense resulted in a backcourt violation and in less than a minute the Bobcats were on an 8-2 run. The quarter ended with more basket trading and as the white flag waved to signal the final lap, Philly still clung to an ironic and iconic 3-point lead, 76-73.
Ramon Sessions had spent the first three quarters having a rare night of struggles. It became apparent early that the Philly scouting report indicated that shutting down Sessions was a key to victory. Like all good veterans, Ramon found other ways to contribute (5 assists, 5 rebounds) until the Sixers defense gave him an inch. It was all he needed to explode with a steal-fueled pair of baskets to tie things up at 81 with a bit less than nine minutes remaining. One thing about the NBA however, if you break concentration for even a minute even the weakest teams in the league will rip into you. Philadelphia is not one of the weakest NBA teams. Some defensive lapses on the perimeter allowed Jason Richardson to erupt. He scored 3 from behind the arc and led Philly on a 12-4 tear. Suddenly the Bobcats were back down by 8 with less than 4 to go.
At this point the Sixers handed the Cats a pair of breaks. First, red-hot Evan Turner picked up his fifth foul and second, Philly decided to eat the clock instead of trying to go for the quick score. In 28 seconds the lead eroded from 8 down to 4. With a minute remaining, the Cats were still in the thick of it, but somehow I think most long-term fans already knew it just wasn’t in the cards. Apparently, so did Coach Dunlap. Rather than play the foul and creep game, he let the Sixers play the clock down to 15 seconds and barely made a token effort. Kemba drained a trey to end the scoring, but the end result had already been settled. The Bobcats fell a bit short and the final score was, 104-98.
I was concerned during the pre-game when I heard Coach Dunlap say his main plan involved staying close until they could figure out a way to get the job done. Although my coaching experience is limited to soccer, I never sent a team onto the pitch without both a main victory plan and a backup because something unexpected always managed to happen. It was fairly clear by the first minutes of the 4th that Coach D had not worked out a dependable strategy. Whenever Stephanie Ready reported on her eavesdropping results after timeouts it was the same story. Coach kept telling the team to play tighter defense, but never keyed on a specific weakness or directed the guys to work on a particular matchup. There are times – although in hoops it’s especially unfair – when you point to a particular player having an off night as being blameworthy for a loss. There are even times when you can pick out a specific play or foul (called or uncalled) to accuse. Although I believe we have the best we could ask for in a head coach, I can’t help but lay blame for this loss at his feet. His pre-game interview indicated a surprising lack of readiness. In fact, his first comment in the post-game press conference was to say that our defense “could have been better.” He explained his decision to limit Kemba Walker’s minutes in the fourth quarter by saying that “no offense” meant, but Kemba wasn’t matching up defensively. He also mentioned that he would have preferred it if the guys picked up defense in the backcourt instead of waiting for the Sixers to get into the forecourt with the ball.
I saw a number of firsts tonight from Coach Dunlap. For the first time, I saw him fail to outline a path to victory. No coach ever spills the entire can of beans in an interview, but usually even a semi-educated fan can get a good idea of what to watch for. Not this time. For the very first time I also saw Coach Dunlap fail to make in-game adjustments to strategy. Philly was forced into a half-court offense for the entire night. I counted one single fast-break basket in the entire game for the Sixers. Dell Curry told us that unlike most other teams, Philly prefers to keep the ball on the perimeter to force the defenders out and open up the paint for dunks and layups. Because the refs had adopted a “let them play” attitude for most of the game (only 14 shooting fouls called) this strategy wasn’t giving Philly much of an advantage. Instead, they started pounding the Bobcats with constant pick-and-roll plays. Apart from limiting Kemba’s minutes (27 total, almost none in crunch time) Coach Dunlap didn’t make any defensive assignments or zone calls to limit the effectiveness of the Sixers screens. Most importantly in terms of the immediate future of the team fortunes, for the first time tonight I saw something that has been very common with previous Charlotte coaches, but never with Coach Dunlap. I saw frustration. It was in his body language, it was in his eyes, and it was even in his breathing during the press conference. He was exhausted and beaten. He slumped at the table. His answers trailed away and often went unfinished.
When I noticed this sort of thing with Coach Brown, it was literally a matter of days before he started chewing on DJ Augustin like a pit bull with a fresh pork bone. With Coach Silas you could see years etch their way onto his face with each passing game until finally he spent more time prepping his son than he did prepping his players. In each case, it’s meant the same thing; behind the coach’s eyes you could see a career dissipation light blinking. I’m going to be watching closely. Some coaches, particularly those without a lot of experience to jade them – bounce back quickly. I have a lot of faith in Coach D. I also have a lot of faith in the ability of this roster. Most of all, I have faith that the pure love of this game displayed by both the staff and the players of this team will win out and be an invigorating presence.
But this was a winnable game. It was still within reach with plenty of time on the clock. I kept waiting for that game-changing timeout and it never came. Philly never needed it and Charlotte’s coach, for whatever reason, never called it. Our coach came onto the court with empty pockets. That’s scary to me. I can think of a dozen reasons for it, but none are good this early in a season. We began a stretch of 7 out of 9 home games tonight. Many of the games will be tougher challenges than the one we faced tonight. In fact, we have a better shot at snaring a win out of one of the road games than we do against most of the teams rolling into the Cable Box in the next two weeks.
These are the games we have to win. We had 6 players in double-digit points tonight. We only turned the ball over 10 times and Bismack matched his career scoring high. I’ve been around long enough to know better than to let one game stress me out about an entire season. But tonight the Bobcats weren’t tougher, stronger, OR faster enough. At least, not nearly as much as they’ve shown us they can be. I’ve come to expect better, but that’s because this group of young and hungry ballers has shown me better.
The Bobcats will get a rare weekend off without travel time to prepare themselves for one of the weakest Trailblazer teams in recent seasons on Monday night. I’ll be watching Coach Dunlap closely to see if he manages to shrug off this very unusual off night. Monday will be yet another game that should be within the grasp of the team’s sharp claws. It’s also the first of 4 games in 6 nights. Next weekend will see an away/home back-to-back that will send the team to Wisconsin on Friday to face the Bucks and then racing home to play whomever the Spurs send to Charlotte on Saturday. When I sat down and studied the schedule prior to the start of the season I had us capable of winning 3 of the first 4 games in December, but expected us to win only 2. (I assumed we’d lose one to fatigue). I also had December pegged as our toughest month because it includes a 4 games in 5 nights West Coast road trip followed by games against the Heat and Nets right after Christmas. This coming week is our best chance to improve our record before the nightmare of the pre-holiday schedule takes our beloved Bobcats on a long and ugly trip 3000 miles from Trade Street.