Posted Apr 24 2010 7:22PM
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- On the overhead video screen, they flashed back often to the good old Charlotte playoff days, circa 1990 or so, when the Hornets owned this town and Muggsy Bogues ran it. Even Muggsy himself showed up Saturday and stood for a hero's welcome, although it was hard to spot him in the crowd; we should report that he's still 5-foot-3.
The more pressing issue at the moment, though, is whether the Bobcats, not Muggsy, are growing a bit.
Um, not quite. While 19,596 fans did show up for Game 3 against the Magic, the largest NBA crowd ever at Time Warner Cable Arena, and had a reason to stay 'til the end, the replacement team still trails the original Charlotte team in many ways. That's because the Hornets had a larger following, made plays in big moments and won a few playoff games, all of which the Bobs are still trying to do here in the spring.
It's now three games to none, advantage Orlando, and the first-round series is clearly flummoxing the Bobcats. Dwight Howard, the Magic's imposing center, once again was a near no-factor because of fouls, and the Bobcats played solid defense, and yet couldn't draw blood from Orlando. Their 90-86 loss could be blamed on an inability to discover the winning formula down the stretch, while Howard was on the bench and the crowd was on its feet. The town, which had waited six years for the Bobcats to reach the postseason, desperately wanted a reason to celebrate but was never given one.
Down the stretch, Stephen Jackson missed an open 3-pointer. Gerald Wallace, the Bobcats' second leading scorer, didn't take a shot in the fourth quarter. Raymond Felton had his hands full, and then some, with Jameer Nelson, the MVP of this series so far.
"We lost the game not because of what they did," Wallace said, "but because of what the Bobcats didn't do."
Well, perhaps the Bobcats are being a little tough on themselves. Their defense in this series has been quite good. Vince Carter was quieted by Wallace, Howard has been surrounded by bodies and with the exception of Nelson, nobody on the Magic have hurt Charlotte. Orlando is unquestionably the better team, by virtue of being a division winner and defending conference champion. Plus, this is the first postseason taste not only for the franchise but many on the roster, Jackson the exception.
But it has been a turnover here, a lapse there, and some gruesome shooting stretches that has doomed Charlotte. At this point, the Bobcats, if nothing else, just want to win a game to gain firmer footing in the community that only now is beginning to warm to them.
"It's coming," said NBA commissioner David Stern, about the bond between the city and the team. "That's exciting to see."
The old Hornets knew how to win a crowd over. Of course, the circumstances were a bit different. They were the only professional game in town; the Panthers hadn't been birthed yet. They immediately grabbed some great talent through the draft, including Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning. And for the most part they met expectations. The highlight was Mourning sinking a jumper from the key to eliminate the Celtics for the franchise's first big postseason moment; Zo was immediately mobbed by his teammates and that memory, too, was flashed on the screen during Game 3.
Such a sight wasn't to be duplicated on Saturday. Jackson scored 19 points but needed 18 shots. Larry Hughes provided a spark from the bench but the starters were relatively invisible. And with Howard playing just 26 minutes and fouling out with 3:32 left in a one-point game, the Bobcats never took the lead in the final three minutes.
"We're just missing shots," Felton said . "We'll figure it out."
Barring the unforeseen, the series will belong to Orlando, and then the Bobcats must address some serious issues. They're committed to over $60 million in salaries next season and owner Michael Jordan is reluctant to flirt with the luxury tax. Felton is an unrestricted free agent, however, and the Bobcats must also decide whether to exercise Tyrus Thomas' $6 million option or let him go, too. Plus, two of their next three first-round picks belong to other teams.
Meanwhile, there's no young star on the roster who's bubbling to break out and give them a boost for next season. Basically, the Bobcats are realistically stuck in 40-45 win territory, the dreaded mediocrityville, where they're not bad enough to land a high pick or good enough to make a title run.
As for Larry Brown, he says the Bobcats are the last team he'll coach. But haven't we heard Brown draw the line in the sand many times before in his nomadic career? Also, with his family living in Philadelphia, where the 76ers are looking for a coach ... well, let's just say the summer will be interesting.
What the Bobcats do from here, starting with Monday's Game 4, will determine whether they'll approach the popularity the Hornets had. Interestingly, the biggest cheer on Saturday was reserved for Muggsy, a small (and yet big) reminder of better basketball times in Charlotte.
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