Emeka Okafor and the Washington Wizards came rolling in to Time Warner Cable Arena for another Monday night “nobody but the fans really care about” game this evening. At the time of the tip it looked as if the Wizards players and coaches came fairly close to outnumbering the fans seated in the lower level of the Cable Box, harkening back to some of the early games in the Bobcats history when Emeka was actually suited up as our star rookie. Back then we were a lottery bound team with some hope for the future as opposed to now when we’re… well, pretend I didn’t say anything. If for no other reason than matters of pride and morale, the Cats are a team badly in need of something to smile about. In recent weeks there have been articles where players around the league have said that Time Warner is the NBA building with the absolute least semblance of a home court advantage, comments that current coach Mike Dunlap wasn’t even on our list of finalists for the job, and speculation that Michael Jordan is considering coming out of retirement to play once again at age 50. These are some of the darkest days for a franchise that is no stranger to darkness. I’m afraid to ask y’all to take the jump because a few of you may be reading on your tablets while standing on the Cable Box roof so I’ll just say, please read on.
The Bobcats scored the first basket and held a slim lead for the bulk of the first quarter with the Wizards unable to quite take the lead away and the Cats unable to build a sustained run. Washington’s biggest threat, John Wall, earned a couple of early fouls and headed for the bench, increasing Charlotte’s fortunes. Josh McRoberts took advantage of breakdowns in Wizards defensive communication to stroll down the middle of the lane for a fast and-one and as the first frame drew to a close Ben Gordon began leading the parade of the twos by nailing a quick trey from the top of the key and slowly the Cats lead began to grow. Significantly, although they came as close as possible to giving up another deadly 30 point first quarter, the Bobcats managed to come out on top in the first by a 32-29 margin. Josh “Knife” McRoberts led the way for Charlotte with 9 points, 3 boards, and 3 assists and it didn’t hurt that the team only committed one turnover in the opening 12 minutes.
Byron Mullens took the floor in the second and wasted no time in burying a 15-footer that could only help increase his confidence as he tries to get back his shooter’s form. After so many games in which the Cats have watched other teams slowly expand on a lead to suddenly discover that a tightly contested match had somehow transformed into a blowout, it appeared the guys may have picked up a few tips. At no time did they appear to be dominating the Wizards, yet each time the Wizards would assemble enough offense to pull within a couple of points, Mullens or Kemba Walker, or Jannero Pargo would respond with an offensive surge and the Cats would pull out to a six or eight point spread in response. Gerald Henderson continued to tear defenses to shreds and once again became the first Charlotte starter to break the double-digit scoring threshold. Hendo hasn’t so much as “arrived” as he’s simply taken over since the All-Star break. Each night he somehow shows up with quicker reflexes, fresher moves, and an utterly fearless attitude. In some ways, he displayed an affinity for basic math. Assault the paint and release the shot + getting contact from the defender = either an and-one or a trip to the stripe for a free pair. This equation made for almost half of his points as by himself he went 6 for 7 at the line in the first half alone. As the halftime buzzer sounded the Cats had added one point net to their lead. Despite leading by as many as eight several times, the march to the locker room came with the score showing the Bobcats matching their best total of the season, 63-59.
There was so much to like for Bobcats fans in the first half. Back-to-back thirty point quarters have been as rare as polite Yankee tourists this season, but the Fightin’ Felines posted them. They completed the half with a mere 3 turnovers. That’s worthy of saying again. The Bobcats completed the half with THREE turnovers. They were shooting 57% for the half. They had rendered Wall largely ineffective by getting him to commit a trio of fouls that limited him to a mere 15 minutes playing time and 10 points. The Cats had 3 players already in double figures in the scoring with several others closing in on joining the club. Our 10-Day man is looking more like a true find each time he steps on the court. In fact, Jay-P, as Kemba calls him, had managed the almost impossible mission of making the absence of injured Ramon Sessions almost painless. In the first half Pargo dropped in 11 points, was 3 for 4 from behind the arc, had a pair of assists and a timely steal in just over 9 minutes of playing time. He’s costing us next to nothing and playing like his life depends on it. If I may be so bold Mr. Higgins, screw the second 10 days. Sign this man for the rest of the season and tell Dunlap to find him 15 minutes per. He’ll convert at least 3 Ls into Ws before we all settle in to watch the rest of the league go to the playoffs. In other words, he’s our best chance of besting the 20 wins that all the experts said we had no prayer of surpassing this year. That’s just my opinion and I’m not wrong.
Thus it became time to begin the endless-seeming wasteland that Charlotte Bobcats fans commonly call the third quarter. Growing up as a kid in Boston everyone at the Gahden would eagerly await the third quarter because we knew that no matter how far the Celts were down at the half, somehow in the third that little leprechaun would show up above the rims and the Beaners would find their way back into the thick of game contention. I haven’t spotted him yet, but I’m pretty sure a tiny carpenter shows up to nail the Bobcats baskets shut in the third at Time Warner. I expect when I finally spot the critter it’s going to resemble that gremlin-like beast on the wing of the plane in that Twilight Zone segment that was busily trashing the engines and scaring the life out of William Shatner or John Lithgow (depending on your generation).
Yeah, you guessed it. The Wizards snared their first lead with just over 7 minutes left in the quarter and the Cats suddenly started shooting ice cubes. An enraged Michael Kidd Gilchrist slammed down a dunk so hard that a little white flag briefly appeared and waved above the rim and taking him into double-digit scoring for what is rapidly becoming commonplace. In fact, his average has gone from 6.8 to 9.0 points per since the break. Mullie followed up with a trey that pulled the Cats back to within one and brought him back into shouting range of ten points as well. John Wall, left to run free after spending enough time on the bench to lessen the burden of foul trouble from his shoulders, started leading his squad and stretched the Washington lead to five for the first time. Mullie responded with another trey and a rebound/pass to a streaking Henderson and before six seconds could lapse the Cats were back to a tie. Suddenly it seemed as if nobody on either team could miss a shot. Okafor rose up for a trademark dunk and out of nowhere Gerald Henderson somehow appeared and blocked the snot out of it. Ben Gordon quickly shot up the court and nailed a three and on the next possession found Henderson for an uncontested dunk. The Cats were once again in the driver’s seat with a four-point lead. Washington called a momentum timeout but it was in vain. Play resumed and the Cats made it a 9-point run seconds later. Not only did the Bobcats weather the third quarter and a serious run by the Wizards, but they showed a level of maturity seldom seen in the past 2 seasons. They notched a third 30-point quarter and headed into the final frame with a comfortable lead, 94-89.
Nonetheless, Garrett Temple slipped in a pair of treys around the 10 minute mark and gave Washington the lead once again. It was quickly turning into a “give-no-quarter” war at Time Warner Cable Arena. The teams tied at 101. They tied at 103. Each shot became contested to the point that for 4 minutes the only scoring occurred at the charity stripe. After being almost flawless from the stripe however, Charlotte came crashing back to earth, missing 4 out of 5 free throws, which allowed Washington to slip out by a point with possession. Some inspired defense at the baseline by Mullens caused Wall to commit a holding foul and turn the ball over and once again the momentum swung back to the Felines. Gordon once again forgot that you can’t take a step with your pivot foot, turning the ball over and allowing John Wall to bank in his 23rd point. Wall returned the favor on the next possession by passing a ball intended for Trevor Booker into the waiting arms of Coach Dunlap. Elbows flew into throats, heads butted ribcages and refs seemed unable to say anything except “play on.” Charlotte called timeout with 3:14 to go and Washington extending out to their biggest lead of the night 111-106. I’d not worried once about our chances until this point. Suddenly, I got nervous. Why? As the director called for the slow-fade to commercial I saw Mike Dunlap (sorry, he doesn’t deserve the honorarium of “Coach” for this) turn to his staff of assistants, spread his arms, and say, “now what?” Hoo-boy. At least 3 of his on-the-court players heard him say it and watched him do it. After scoring a basket, Dunlap called another timeout which he spent chatting with his assistants while the players sipped Gatorade and waited for guidance. They came back to the court looking dazed and defeated. Thank the Lord above that the Wizards blew the inbounds pass and turned the ball over. Four seconds later Ben Gordon holed a trey to tie the game at 111. After a one and out, Kemba banked in a long jumper and Washington was forced to call a timeout of their own as the Cats once again took the lead. In the immortal words of Roy Orbison, “mer-sey!”
As play resumed Kemba let Wall knock him to the ground drawing Wall’s 5th foul, took the inbounds and cut through the Wizards defense and it was 115-111 Cats. Kemba – the one-man-wrecking-crew, stole a pass, raced upcourt, dished to Gerald Henderson for a trey and the Bobcats were on a 12-0 run and with 55 seconds remaining had torn out in front 118-111. In Dunlap I mistrust, but Kemba, you my boy, and you da franchise baybee! Give this man a pair of TSP Gamebreaker Awards, because he deserves one for efforts at both ends of the court.
The next 20 seconds led to a Wizards trey and John Walls committing his sixth foul. The foul sent Walls to the bench and allowed McRoberts to twist his knife just a mite more, making one of two from the stripe to make the score 119-114. Washington called their final timeout with 27.4 remaining. The Wizards missed a pair of quick three-pointer attempts, Henderson grabbed the final airball and the fat lady finally got to sing again to serenade a Bobcats victory. The final score 119-114. It was the best offensive performance of the season to date for the Bobcats and impressive across all levels despite being billed early on as a defensively-minded team. The statline was nothing short of incredible.
Seven Bobcats wound up in double-figures in the scoring column with Gerald Henderson leading all players with 27. He also played “iron man” hoops, logging almost 45 and a half minutes of playing time. He matched his career high with 8 assists and between Gerald and Kemba they added up to a healthy 15 assists for the night as a pair. (I’ll assume you can do the math.)
Mullie continued to make great strides back to the man we’re used to seeing, not only notching a dozen points, but also tallying 5 rebounds and 5 assists, doing more of the all-around workhorse labor we love to watch. Remember that gaping hole at the 4 we’ve had for two seasons? Does Josh McRoberts’ 17 points, 7 boards, 3 assists, and two steals take you back to the days of Crash & Jax ball? It sure helps, dun’ it? MKG continues to improve with yet another solid performance. In fact, the only true disappointment for the Bobcats tonight (apart from Mike Dunlap’s continued public displays of torpor and helplessness) remained the ineffective play of Bismack Biyombo. I won’t say he lacked effort. He busted his hump on that court. But 2 points and a single rebound in almost 18 minutes of action presents a rather obvious and constant vacuum compared to the stats of the other 4 starters. Basically, we could have started Desagna and fared better. I have no clue what the problem is, but since McRoberts arrived and started shouldering some offensive burdens it’s as if Biz has just shrunk a bit more into himself with each passing game. In fact, I’d almost like to see Dunlap try a tandem starting trio of McRoberts, Mullie and MKG. Sure we’d be playing small-ball, but against a team like Detroit (Saturday) or Orlando (next Wednesday) it could be a deadly threesome that would be more than either team could handle well.
Well, I got the pleasure of writing up a Bobcats victory as the team begins the final push to end the season. Except for Miami, most of the teams we’ll be facing are teams we can and have beaten in recent seasons. There is no chance whatsoever that the Cats can mess up enough to slide into the playoff picture, but the big question the fans will be asking is this:
“Will the Charlotte Bobcats manage to win enough games to reduce their bingo-ball numbers in the lottery or will they need to tank a few to ensure the best possible odds?”