Bobcats Come Up Short, But Earn Respect

by Wheat Hotchkiss

December 14, 2013 | 12:47 a.m.

Down by two with 29 seconds left on the road against the NBA’s best team through the first quarter of the season, the Charlotte Bobcats showed no fear.

Rookie head coach Steve Clifford drew up a play designed to let Al Jefferson, his star big man, take the ball in the post and challenge 7-foot-2 Roy Hibbert, the early front-runner for Defensive Player of the Year. It was the matchup that all 18,165 in attendance wanted to see.

Jefferson caught the ball on the left baseline with 25 seconds on the clock, swung the ball from his left hip to his right and made his way for the paint like a bull charging after a red cape. Charlotte’s $41 million dollar man took one dribble, turned his back to Hibbert, then took two more quick dribbles and rose up for a right-handed hook. In response, Hibbert extended his arms toward the rafters – the paragon of verticality.

The ball arced high into the air…and hit the backboard well off the mark, high and to the right.

David West secured the rebound, George Hill sank a pair of free throws, and the Pacers came away with a 99-94 win, improving to 20-3 on the season and 11-0 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

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In the game’s pivotal showdown, Hibbert prevailed. But Jefferson, who scored 15 of his game-high 21 points in the second half, insists he’d do it all over again. Though the official scorer credited the Pacers center with a block, Jefferson maintained it was his own mistake – not Hibbert’s presence – that led to the play’s failure.

“I had like I had him basically all night – going toward the middle – but the ball just slipped out of my hand and I lost control of it,” Jefferson said in the losing locker room. “I wish I could turn back the hands of time.

“I had everything I wanted, I got the shot I wanted, but it just slipped out of my hand.”

Though the game may have slipped away through Jefferson’s fingers, Charlotte’s strong showing won’t slip the minds of the Pacers anytime soon.

16 days earlier in Charlotte, the Bobcats allowed the Pacers to pull away in the fourth quarter for a 25-point win. Friday night, they hung tough on the road, giving Indiana its toughest test yet at The Fieldhouse.

That turnaround mirrors the growth of the franchise over the past couple years. Just two seasons ago, Charlotte won just seven of 66 games. At 10-13, they’re still a ways from entering the ranks of the NBA’s elite, but in this year’s Eastern Conference, that’s good enough for sixth place, just two games out of third. Pacers point guard George Hill referred to the Bobcats as “up-and-coming.”

“They’re not the same Charlotte team they were a couple years ago,” Hibbert said.

Paul George echoed that sentiment: “They’re not the Charlotte that they used to be.”

The addition of Jefferson has given the Bobcats a go-to scorer. The hiring of Clifford has thus far proven inspired, as he’s turned them into a defensive juggernaut, currently second in the NBA to the Pacers in points allowed. On Friday night, they held George, the NBA’s fourth-leading scorer, to a season-low 10 points on 2-for-12 shooting.

“We knew this was going to be a fight,” Pacers forward David West said. “They’re scrappy, and they’re an improving team. It was very dangerous for us, but luckily we were able to make enough plays down the stretch to get the win.”

Young and hungry, the Bobcats have shown an ability to play tough in hostile environments. Nine of the 10 players who saw the floor for Charlotte Friday night are 28 years old or younger.

Starting point guard Kemba Walker, who scored 13 points Friday, is just 23. Top pick and Indianapolis native Cody Zeller, who scored seven points and helped trigger a big second quarter run where Charlotte scored on 11 of 17 possessions, is 21. Last year’s top pick, Michael-Kidd Gilchrist, out with an injury Friday night with a fractured hand, is 20.

Yet the Bobcats seem to play up to the challenge on the road, losing by just a single point at Miami on Dec. 1 and playing Dallas down to the wire on Dec. 3.

“I don’t know what it is, but we are a tough-minded, hard-fighting team on the road,“ Clifford said.

But while they’ve played tough on the road, Charlotte hasn’t gotten over the hump. Once again Friday night, they couldn’t make the plays down the stretch to get the win. While Lance Stephenson and David West converted key buckets for Indiana, Charlotte failed to score on their final five possessions (and eight of their last 10).

“We played a hell of a game,” Jefferson said. “…I think they played their best tonight. They played a great game tonight, and we still were right there. I just think they made plays and we didn’t at the end.”

“It just came down to all five guys on the defensive end getting stops down the stretch,” said Hill.

Clifford said afterwards he felt that the difference in the game was post defense. Hibbert, West, and Luis Scola each scored in double figures and combined for 43 points. While Zeller and Jefferson each acknowledged the Bobcats’ difficulty in covering that trio, Clifford took personal responsibility for the result, noting that he has yet to implement some more advanced interior defensive coverage schemes. Though they’re part of his “master plan,” the first-year coach doesn’t want to throw too much too soon at his young team.

“To this point, we haven’t been hurt by it, but tonight we were,” Clifford said. “They have a lot of ways they play offensively, but they have a lot of post-up options, and they hurt us with it. We didn’t have enough things to go to when we needed to and it hurt us.”

In the end Friday night, the better team prevailed. That is without question. Disappointed with the outcome, the Bobcats remained optimistic about their future. And they’re eager to see the Pacers once again, on March 5 in Charlotte.

“We had them where we wanted them,” Jefferson said. “But we’ve got them [one] more [time] and [we’ll] just try to be ready to face them.”

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