Charlotte faced a tough road entering this week. Losing one of their stars, Kemba Walker, for up to two weeks with an ankle injury was not the preferred way to take on the week. Especially with a matinee, a Western Conference powerhouse and a tussle with a defensive stallworth all on the docket. So what happened? Well, let’s take a look back and see.
-Head Coach Steve Clifford joined the Mac Attack on WFNZ on Tuesday, and as is his norm, gave a candid interview.
- On Wednesday, Forbes gave their listing of NBA team values. Charlotte ranked 29th of 30 teams, with the bright spot being a 30% increase in value.
- The 28 man roster for Team USA was announced on Thursday. Neither Kemba Walker nor Michael Kidd-Gilchrist made the cut.
- On Thursday, Walker revealed this is the first time he’s missed games…ever.
Monday, 1/20 at Time-Warner Cable Arena: Charlotte 100, Toronto 95
As the old saying goes, even the longest journey begins with a single step. On Monday afternoon, the Charlotte Bobcats began their first journey without Kemba Walker since his arrival. They got off on the right foot early.
While the lane is blue at Time-Warner Cable Arena, it might as well have been a red carpet for the Bobcats early on. Charlotte got almost any shot they wanted near the rim and converted 57.1% of their shots in the first quarter and 55.6% for the first half. Al Jefferson (22 points, 19 rebounds) was the ringleader of the Charlotte onslaught, becoming the first player in franchise history to record a double-double in the first quarter with his 10 point and 10 rebound performance. Ramon Sessions, filling in for the injured Walker, chipped in 11 of his 23 points in the first half as well.
Charlotte’s shooting touch and defensive prowess (Toronto was held to 33.3% shooting in the 1st half) continued deep into the third quarter. After a pair of Sessions free throws at the 4:37 mark, Charlotte’s lead swelled to 71-41.
At that point, a Charlotte win seemed inevitable to everyone. Everyone except the Raptors, that is. Buoyed by improved defense on Jefferson by Chuck Hayes, a declining defensive effort from the Bobcats and increased turnovers from the home team, Toronto nearly erased the entire 30 point deficit en route to amassing a 51-22 run.
It was not to be for the visiting team, though, as Kyle Lowry (21 points, 4 assists) missed the potential game-tying free throw with 25 seconds left and Jefferson corralled the rebound. From that point on, Charlotte hit six of seven free throws and held court defensively to avoid an embarrassing collapse.
Though the win was welcomed, the manner in which is was obtained was not lost on Jefferson.
“We knew we had to come out and jump out on them, build a big lead. But of course, we had to make it a game; couldn’t enjoy an easy win. But we stuck together at the end and pulled it out, so it was a big win.”
A big win that almost never was, with almost being the key word.
Wednesday, 1/22 at Time-Warner Cable Arena: Charlotte 95, Los Angeles 91
With Kemba Walker sidelined for up to two weeks with an ankle injury, questions arose about who would step up in his absence. The answer, it turns out so far, is everyone – on the defensive end.
In a tug-of-war affair that came down to the final minute, Charlotte flexed a defensive muscle reminiscent of their early season performances. The Bobcats held the high-octane Clippers to 91 points on 43.4% shooting, both well below their season averages of 105 points and 46.4%. Charlotte head coach Steve Clifford was pleased with his team’s defensive form.
“I’m excited about it,” said Clifford. “I think we’re getting better. We’re getting back to defending the way we did earlier in the year.”
Nowhere was that improvement more noticeable than in the fourth quarter. After torching Charlotte for 26 points in the first 3 quarters, the Bobcats held Blake Griffin to 1 point on 0 of 4 shooting in the final frame. Griffin’s teammates fared little better, shooting 39.1% in the fourth as well.
Aided by strong performances from their bench (Jannero Pargo with 11 points, Anthony Tolliver with 11), Charlotte was able to maintain a six point lead at 84-78 when the starters returned with 6:30 left in the contest. The Clippers, relying heavily on pick-and-rolls between Griffin and Jamal Crawford, then went on an 11-5 run to tie the game at 89 with 1:05 left.
After both teams traded missed baskets, Sessions worked his way into the paint and lifted a floater that fell both well short and right into a lonely Gerald Henderson’s hands. Henderson (13 points, 7 rebounds) wasted no time in slamming home the errant shot and giving Charlotte a 91-89 lead. Two defensive stands and four made free throws later, Charlotte pulled off their biggest win of the season.
“You don’t expect a lot of airballs,” said Henderson of the play that put Charlotte ahead to stay. “He shot his shot and it fell right in my lap. Nobody was around me, so I just went up and dunked it. It wasn’t a pass, but we talked coming out of the timeout that as I was setting a screen and getting to the corner, my guy was coming to help and nobody was picking me up. So, instead of going to the corner, I just stayed there and there was nobody around me.”
Being at the right place at the right time was both fortuitous and not as common for Charlotte in close games this season. It’s a process that must be learned, and learning they are said Al Jefferson (24 points, 10 rebounds).
“Every close game that we’ve had this year that we didn’t pull out, we learned from it. And tonight, we put it all together and got a team win.”
A team win indeed, and impressive one at that.
Friday, 1/24 at Madison Square Garden: New York 125, Charlotte 96
Though there are several numbers and reasons that can help explain the 125-96 shellacking Charlotte received at the hands of the New York Knicks, none speak with more clarity than the number 62.
Carmelo Anthony scored a Knicks franchise and Madison Square Garden record 62 points on 23 of 35 shooting to sink Charlotte’s attempt at a 3-game winning streak.
Ten days prior, New York came in to Charlotte on the heels of a winning streak and the Bobcats were reeling. Charlotte righted their ship with a decisive 108-98 win on that evening. On Friday, New York came in reeling and the Bobcats were on a bit of a roll. The end result was reversed as well, and reversed nearly from the tip. Anthony got going early, scoring 20 points in the first quarter.
“What happened early was we weren’t ready to play,” said Bobcats Head Coach Steve Clifford during his postgame interview with Stephanie Ready on Sportsouth. “We made mistakes that allowed him (Anthony) room and he got going.”
And once Anthony got going there was no stopping him, no matter who (or how many) defended him. As the Knicks’ lead continued to pile up, the only real mystery left in the contest was how many points Anthony would end up with. Knowing that 62 would give Anthony the Knicks scoring record, New York Head Coach Mike Woodson mercifully pulled him from the game once the 62 point mark was reached with 7:23 left in the game.
The lone bright spot for Charlotte was the continued impressive play of Al Jefferson. Collecting 25 points on 11 of 19 shooting and corralling 9 boards, Jefferson’s efforts will unfortunately go largely unnoticed due to Anthony’s onslaught.
The main issue that did not go unnoticed by Clifford? His teams’ intensity, or lack thereof.
“I told them we’ve been a team that has good readiness and intensity night in and night out,” Clifford told Ready. “We weren’t ready to play tonight and we paid for it. Now we’re going to have to come back and it’s a good challenge. Because tomorrow if we don’t bring a great deal of intensity then against that team (Chicago) we won’t have a chance to win either.”
Saturday, 1/25 at Time-Warner Cable Arena: Chicago 89, Charlotte 87
After seeing what ills can come of a lack of intensity and readiness, the Charlotte Bobcats took heed of their coach’s advice given them night before. They came out of the gates with much improved efforts on both accounts. What they weren’t ready for, however, was an offensive explosion from former Bobcat D.J. Augustin that eventually sent Charlotte to their second straight loss.
Augustin, who played in Charlotte for four years before taking a circuitous route to Chicago, scored 15 of his 28 points in the fourth quarter
“We did some good things, but at the end of the day, Augustin hit six threes and that was the difference in the game,” said Bobcats Head Coach Steve Clifford.
After the opening three quarters proved to be a close, back-and-forth defensive struggle, the Bulls held a scant 57-55 lead entering the final frame. Spearheaded by three of Augustin’s six three pointers, Chicago pulled away from Charlotte via an 21-11 run to open the fourth quarter that earned them 12 point lead.
After fouling multiple times to stop the clock, the Bobcats would pull to within three points with three seconds left behind the work of Al Jefferson (32 points, 13 rebounds), Josh McRoberts and Jannero Pargo. The last of those multiple fouls sent Augustin to the line, allowing him to put the final nail in his former employer’s coffin by hitting both his free throws. That gave the Bulls a five point lead with two seconds left. Jefferson did hit a near half-court shot at the buzzer to make the final score closer, but it was too little, too late in a game that did see Charlotte do many good things according to their coach.
“Our offense was good enough to win the game, the difference was the guy made six threes,” said Clifford. “We rebounded well and our post defense was a lot better. Those were the two things I was most concerned about.”
Which, looking forward, brings the main concern their ability to close out close games, especially lacking their offensive leader, Kemba Walker. After a few days off, they will have more opportunities to learn how to do just that with a road trip that begins in Denver on Wednesday.
With the All-Star starters announced, attention turns to who the coaches will select as reserves for each conference. Always an interesting debate, Charlotte has two candidates to enter into that discussion. Both Al Jefferson and Kemba Walker have put in performances that make them worthy candidates, but will they get the call? Let’s take a look at the cases they’ve made and their chances of making it.
For a team that lacked much in the way of meaningful production from their big men the prior season, Jefferson was a Godsend for the Bobcats. A veteran with a proven track record of low-post scoring, “Big Al” brought his sorely needed skills to Charlotte on the back of a 3 year, $41.5 million contract signed in the offseason. And he has rewarded the Bobcats’ faith in him with impressive performances after a slow start due to a pre-season ankle injury.
For the season, Jefferson averages 18.9 points per game (26th best in the league) and 10.5 rebounds per game (good for 9th in the league). With his ankle giving him less trouble recently, Jefferson has rounded into form in January, tallying 22 points per game on 53.3% shooting during the year’s first month. His performance has helped push Charlotte into playoff contention when most thought that a far-flung ambition before the season started.
But Charlotte’s triumphs aren’t built on Jefferson’s shoulders alone. Walker, his partner in crime, has taken a leading role in the success of the Bobcats. Averaging 18.7 points per game (27th best mark in the NBA) and 5 assists per game (26th in the league), Walker has improved his 3 point shooting from the previous year and is a constant threat to break down defenses with his devastating ball handling. His ability to hit clutch shots (as evidenced by the game-winner against Toronto) is something teams must heavily account for as well. With the severe problems he can cause defenses on a regular basis and the numbers he has posted, Walker has made a viable case for his first All-Star appearance.
Despite their notable work, it won’t be an easy road for either Jefferson or Walker to find their way into New Orleans for the All-Star game. With coaches picking two guards, three frontcourt players and two wild cards, the field narrows for Charlotte’s hopefuls. Given their team’s records and their own personal production this season, the frontcourt spots would likely go to Roy Hibbert, Chris Bosh and Joakim Noah. For the guards, John Wall and Jeff Teague look to be the leading candidates for those spots.
This leaves the wild card spot as Jefferson and Walker’s best shot to be invited. The competition for these spots is tough. In addition to the Bobcats’ duo, Paul Millsap, DeMar Derozan, Lance Stephenson, Andre Drummond and Arron Afflalo are all viable contenders for those coveted spots.
Traditionally, coaches tend to reward players from winning teams when making All-Star selections. For this reason, Stephenson would look to be a frontrunner in the wild card race. His contributions to the best team in the league will be hard to dismiss. Derozan could possibly sneak in here if the coaches feel there is enough representation from Indiana on the squad.
This brings it down to one spot. In what may easily come down to a battle between two former teammates, Jefferson and Millsap could be the final entrants looking to fill out the Eastern roster. And though the fans may not have much time for centers, the coaches who face them every night just might. Millsap is having a great campaign for the Hawks and could easily make it, but Jefferson is putting up numbers that are simply too difficult to ignore.
And though Jefferson feels he’s putting up numbers worthy of an All-Star bid, the elimination of the center spot in All-Star consideration doesn’t help his case, as he jokingly pointed out on Saturday night.
“I figured they’d probably find another excuse to keep me out of there,” Jefferson bemused. “But all that matters to me is trying to get my teammates to get us to another level.”
Ultimately, to earn this individual honor, it may well depend on where Charlotte falls in the playoff race once the coaches’ ballots are due. Holding down a playoff spot at that time could do wonders for Jefferson’s bid to earn his first All-Star berth. It’s a familiar road for the nine-year veteran.
“I’ll say it like this, I’ll be disappointed,” Jefferson said. “I remember a couple years in Minnesota I was averaging 23 (points per game) and 12 (rebounds per game) and it still wasn’t good enough. They said my team wasn’t winning. And now, here in Charlotte, we’re a playoff team but it might still be something (to keep him out). But I don’t worry about the All-Star anymore. Of course it would be wonderful to have that behind my name, but I’ve got a lot of respect from guys in this league, key guys in this league.”
If Charlotte can hold on to a playoff spot, Jefferson could likely have more than just the respect of coaches and key players…he could also have the need to make travel plans to New Orleans in February.
Do What Now?
Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau is, undoubtedly a great basketball mind. Plenty of people would love to spend some time with him and hear him express his thoughts. According to one rumormonger, Kate Upton was one of those people.
Ok, so that may have been tongue-in-cheek. But according to former college teammates, Thibodeau reportedly dated two women named Debbie simultaneously, so take this Upton news any way you wish. The sly devil may be trying to tell the world something.
The Week Ahead
The coming week starts a West coast swing for Charlotte’s cagers. They open the trip in the Mile-High City with a tilt against the Denver Nuggets on Wednesday. Friday, the Los Angeles Lakers play host to the Bobcats while on Saturday Charlotte takes on Phoenix.
Before the week started, if you told Charlotte they would go 2-2 without Walker, they’d likely take that and run. Had you mentioned the final two games would be losses that included a 62 point outburst from Carmelo Anthony and a 28 point out-of-nowhere explosion by ex-Bobcat D.J. Augustin, they may have thought twice before taking that offer.
But in the big picture, Charlotte still holds on to a playoff spot after a week without one of their best players. Not bad work. Repeat that feat this week and Walker likely returns after that. Brighter skies could be on the horizon, but it will be easier said than done, as Charlotte goes out west in their continued campaign to end their playoff drought.