Sometime during the second quarter, when I realized Chris Paul hadn't been scoring, and Tyson Chandler hadn't been scoring, and David West hadn't been scoring, I turned to my buddy Stephen and told him, "This is what the Bobcats do. Against really good teams, they scrap and claw and make you believe they're better than they are, only to give it up in the end."
Not last night, though. Last night, the Bobcats' bugaboo last season, free throws, saved them. They shot 29-31(!) from the line, while New Orleans was 14-19, a huge advantage in a three point victory, 92-89, that was either anomalous to the team's true talent level, or signals a sea change in how they go about their business.
Let's get the bad news out of the way, first. Jared Dudley committed two quick fouls and was barely a factor the rest of the way. The Cats didn't have any answers for Peja Stojakovic early and in crunch time. It seems that when Gerald Wallace guarded him, it was just as I expected before the game, that Peja could shoot over him. Stojakovic went cold in the middle quarters, but then turned cold-blooded killer near the end with two threes that made the game a heartstopper.
G-Force's weird (to me, anyway) deferral to Richardson continued, in which Richardson is almost always the primary option on set plays. When the Cats run that mirrored off-ball wing screen on either side of the ballhandler at the top of the arc, Richardson seems to get the ball a lot more than the other guy curling off the screen, Wallace, which leads to more quick jumpers than Wallace taking the pass and immediately attacking the lane.
But now, let's chat up the good stuff. The game ball goes to both Felton and Augustin. Chris Paul snoozed his way through the first half, and then struggled with turnovers in the second half, even though he still got his 20-10 and 6 steals. I thought Felton and Augustin would be in over their heads trying to deal with him, and either Paul just didn't get it going, or they did something that slowed him down until he shifted into another gear as time started getting short.
Offensively, Felton scored like we hope he does every night. Paul's advantage comes when slower points try to break him down off the dribble or are static on the outside, allowing him to disrupt passing lanes. However, Felton refused to do either, instead getting his points off received passes in motion.
For his part, Augustin was the major catalyst in the Bobcats' fourth quarter run that brought them back from a small deficit. It started against the Hornets' second team, but then, miraculously, continued against their first team all the way until about a minute to go in the game, when Larry Brown subbed back in all the starters.
For the bulk of the run, Brown ran out a classic video game lineup: One super-quick point guard with a little bit of outside shooting ability, two sharpshooters with a little bit of slashing ability, one slasher with a little bit of jump shooting, and one pure defense and rebounding big man. In other words, Augustin, Carroll, Morrison, Wallace, and Okafor. In action, it was a beauty to behold. For some reason, New Orleans couldn't figure out how to deal with all four weapons on the floor. With Carroll and Morrison on the wings, the floor was wide open for Augustin to get inside and make decisions. In order:
Morrison made a three.
Augustin got to the line for two.
Carroll made a jumper for two, off a pretty pump fake behind the arc.
Wallace missed a jumper, but Okafor rebounded and found Augustin for a jumper for two.
Morrison made a three.
Wallace with a dunk off Augustin penetration.
Augustin made a three after a Wallace steal.
Morrison allows this lineup to happen, because his defense has picked up this season.On defense, Wallace and Okafor do their things. Carroll is no great shakes on D, but we can give him the benefit of the doubt and call him below average, but adequate. That leaves Augustin, who is still a liability on defense, partly because he's so small, and partly because he's still learning subtleties of positioning and what pro guards will do to get away from him. If Adam Morrison continues playing defense miles ahead of where he was his rookie year, this lineup is a legitimate second look that the Cats can throw out for chunks of the game.
So, what now? The first rule of managing a sports team, high school, college, or pro, is to always be honest to yourself about your team's abilities. Lying to yourself about how good or how bad certain players are, based on shaky evidence, only leads to tears.
I don't know if this game represents a change in true talent. While I'm confident enough to chalk up Dudley's struggles to just an off night, I'd like to declare Morrison an energizer off the bench, but there's no telling if Ammo really is that guy or if he's just having a hot stretch. The same goes for Augustin. I'm not sure if the flashes of ballhandling wizardry he's shown are a differentiating skill, or just flashes of a superior athlete trapped in an inferior mold.
Finally, there's a little bit of news to report on the Gerald Wallace front, which makes it somewhat easier to swallow. Basically, the rumor goes, Wallace would go to Golden State, Al Harrington would go to New York, and we'd get David Lee and Eddy Curry. For some reason, the Spurs are interested in Curry (so the rumor says), so we'd then flip him to San Antonio for a pick and whomever makes the deal work. If there's another team that can make it work so we don't keep Curry and end up with a pick, that might be worth it, though I haven't run any tough analyses.
Here's the more intriguing possibility: Portland is having trouble with Sergio Rodriguez right now. With a crowded point guard situation in Portland, is there any way Charlotte could take advantage, either bringing Spanish Chocolate here or sending him elsewhere for more profit?