Grizzlies try mauling Mullens but he still can't be stopped.
There is SO much to get excited about if you're a Bobcats fan! All the normal early season struggles that the team usually faces are already out of the way. First win? Piece of cake. Road win? With finesse baybee! Signs of improvement? Well, let's be real here, it would have been hard to stink worse than the team did last season. But when was the last time we had a three-game winning streak and a record above .500 this early in the season?
In fact, the Bobcats are among the hottest teams in the NBA at present. The hottest team in the NBA knocked off the Knicks last night on their way into the Queen City. The surprising Memphis Grizzlies juggernaut came rolling onto the Cable Box with each team likely wondering if the other was for real. The big question of the evening? Which is tougher, the claws of the bear or the claws of the angry Bobcats?
It became clear from the start that the Grizzlies were going to need some warming up. Despite some very aggressive moves into the paint, they couldn't seem to get into scoring rhythm. Scoring for the Bobcats started out in style with a beautiful trey from Byron Mullen and the Cats grabbed and held the early lead. Unfortunately, these are not the Grizzlies of old. Memphis was once well known for folding early against teams that came out fast and hard against them, but they've spent the past several seasons getting stronger, more aggressive, and assembling a deadly and deep roster. Shortly after the midpoint of the quarter, the Grizzlies began to use their superior muscle to take control. While the Bobcats kept attempting to push the pace and keep the bears running, Memphis patiently stuck to their set offense and soon enough the shots that had been off the mark at the outset began going in. The Grizzlies ran off a 12-point run before Kemba Walker finally stopped the bleeding with a baseline jumper after a momentum-breaking Charlotte timeout.
Tyrus Thomas came off the bench and wasted no time establishing himself in the paint and stretching for blocks and boards. Although he wasn't able to make the immediate impact that he's been known for so far this season, the fresh legs and hustle threw the Grizzlies offense off by just enough that the Cats began to scramble their way back into the fight. As the opening frame came to a close the Cats still trailed 19-25. Still, for the most part, Charlotte succeeded in Coach Dunlap's goal of keeping Memphis running wherever possible. The constant movement would hopefully pay dividends in the late minutes – especially with Memphis landing in town at 4 in the morning after playing in NY.
The second quarter was one of those NBA grinders. Neither team was really able to break out for most of the quarter and the defense at both ends of the court clamped down hard. It wasn't until Rudy Gay buried a trey with just over 3 minutes left in the half that the point spread started getting worrisome. Charlotte didn't help matters much by coming up empty on 8 of 9 offensive possessions leading up to that moment. The Cats began struggling with two problems. First, the turnovers began to mount up at an alarming rate, allowing the Grizzlies to score points in clusters. Secondly, when any team is getting used to the run-n-gun offense that Coach Dunlap has his young stallions committed to there is a tendency to get caught up in the pace. This often results in rushed, off-balance shots where one more pass would have earned a much higher percentage look at the hole. Nonetheless, as the teams left the court for the half, Memphis had only managed to slightly expand their lead to 9. In fact, Byron Mullen snuck up to steal the Memphis inbounds pass for a trey at the buzzer that would have shaved it back down to a 6-point deficit had it gone in. Halfway mark score, Memphis on top 38-47.
The halftime stats presented a fairly solid picture of what the Cats would need to do to turn things around in the home stretch. The Grizzlies were mauling the felines on the boards 25-18, had stolen the ball 7 times compared to 4, and was crushing Charlotte with a .450 shooting percentage with Charlotte responding with an anemic .326% in return. All Charlotte would need to do is hold on to the ball, improve shot selection, and continue to pressure the Grizzlies to run, run, run. Easy-peasy, right? I'd bet a shiny nickel that Coach Dunlap certainly made it sound easy in the locker room at least.
As the second half started, Byron Mullens began showing the hometown faithful just how hard he worked his game in the off-season by scoring the first two baskets of the third quarter after a largely abysmal first half. Unfortunately Michael Kidd-Gilchrist became the "fresh meat" for the officials and snared his fourth foul on a chump call, forcing some hasty adjustments in the paint for the Cats. Additionally, Ben Gordon forgot a basketball fundamental; if you're going to foul during a fast break play, do it in a way that keeps the shot out of the basket. Twice the Grizzlies managed to score and go to the line in transition. That, along with a trio of turnovers at the other end, and the usually rock-steady Gordon, made it almost impossible for the Cats to gain any ground. After building the lead to 17 a couple of times, Memphis ended the third frame up 60-75. Did the Cats make the bears run the court enough to drain the Grizzlies gas tank? Even if the strategy worked, a 15-point deficit is almost insurmountable in the NBA.
The Cats would need to play almost immaculate ball to pull it off.
Once again, it was Mullen providing the spark for the fighting felines with some scrambling defense that set up the Cats with several early fast break chances. The bad news for Charlotte was that the rumors of a brutal Memphis defense were actually an understatement. After getting double-teamed and hammered for three quarters, Kemba Walker finally decided that enough was enough. He began pulling a donkey behind him (translation, hauling a... well, you get the picture) and firing up shots before the Memphis defense could even think about getting into position. He became a one-man bear hunter scoring 10 points in less than 50 seconds. Suddenly the Cats were putting together a run so fast that even they didn't realize it. The once 17-point lead was down to a mere 6 before the midpoint of the quarter.
With a little over 3 minutes left in the game, the Bobbies thought they had caused a backcourt violation but not only did Memphis keep possession, but also scored a three-pointer. That huge moment popped the momentum balloon for the Cats and the Grizzlies started dragging the ball around to kill as much time per possession as they could. The Cats cut it to 5 with 45 seconds left, which, as any NBA fan knows, means fouls, free throws, and a fifteen-minute-long final minute. Or does it? Inbounds pressure by the Cats resulted in a steal and MKG hit one of two free throws. On the rebound, Mullens got nailed in the head hard enough to soak the 3rd row in sweat, but there was no call. After producing more speed than any three meth labs throughout the quarter, the Bobcats were suddenly unable to put the ball in the hole without eating far too much clock. Despite a valiant effort, the Cats became the eighth team in a row to fall to the lava-hot Grizzlies. The final score, 87-94.
Kemba Walker worked harder in this loss than anyone could have asked and I was sorely tempted to award him with a Trade Street Gamebreaker Award, but despite his fiery performance in the 4th quarter, as the Boss says, "you can't start a fire without a spark." That spark came from Byron Mullens. Mullens started the night off with nightmarish shooting and it looked like he couldn't have scored in the Mustang Ranch. A season ago, Mullens would have simply given up and focused on playing defense. Not anymore. Byron came out in the second half and beasted his way to an 18 point 9 rebound night. Without his intensity the Grizzlies would have utterly destroyed the Bobcats. Mully, this Gamebreaker is yours.
So now the Bobcats will take a day off before welcoming the Bucks into Time Warner Cable Arena on Monday night. Despite 4 games in 6 nights, the opposition is such that the Bobcats have a decent chance to be back above the .500 mark this time next weekend. I think even the Bobcats front office is surprised at just how far the team has come in such a short time. If you get the chance, there's a lot to get excited about right now if you're a Bobcats fan. Even with Gerald Henderson stuck on the sidelines for what may be another entire week, the team is playing hard and making some of the premier teams in the league work harder than ever to steal a "W" down on Trade Street.