Bobcats put up good effort, but falter late against Rockets, 96-83

Bob Levey

Were this game for moral victories, the Bobcats would be undefeated.

In past couple years, the Bobcats have made a trend of winning on opening night. Last year they beat Indiana, who eventually lost the eventual Eastern Conference Finals. The previous year they beat Milwaukee with one of the worst rosters ever assembled. This year their opponent was more daunting, but for a while it seemed like they could continue the opening night shockers. Unfortunately, they came up short against Houston, dropping the game 96 to 83.

Charlotte started the game well with Kemba Walker and Gerald Henderson combining to hit 7 of their 12 shots in the first quarter. More than that, they took it right at Dwight Howard and put a knife right in a hole in the Rockets' armor. The Rockets kept pace but seemed to just be frustrated by the Bobcats' defense, which was strong on the perimeter to start the game. The Rockets' 12 turnovers in the first half doubled the Bobcats'.

However, the Bobcats slipped a bit in the second quarter. Their perimeter defense got lazy, especially visible in their permitting Francisco Garcia to get free for 14 first-half points. Most of those were just giving him too much space. On one play, the Bobcats were utterly confused and didn't have anyone guarding him in the right corner. On others, they gave him too much slack so they could cheat on interior penetration in the event their help defense was needed.

Ramon Sessions returned to the floor for his first regular season game in a long time after his injury last season, and added his usual ball penetration and scoring touch. Though Clifford said he didn't want to play small-ball much, he put Sessions at shooting guard a fair amount. The other issue the Bobcats faced was a clear rebounding disadvantage. By my count, the Rockets had eight first-half offensive rebounds from Howard and Asik alone, which led to 7 second-chance points.

After being down six points at the half, the Bobcats fought back to about even with Houston after a pair of Josh McRoberts threes. His shooting stretched the Rockets defense and he was eager to drive into the paint. Such an offensive duality gave the Rockets pause in how to defend the Bobcats. However, he was the Bobcats' only long ball threat tonight. Sessions hit a three, but Henderson and Taylor both struggled to hit from deep. Though Clifford says Gordon was healthy, he didn't see any time because of Taylor's recent play.

The fourth quarter started out fine, but ended quite poorly for Charlotte. They lost their grip on offense with about nine minutes left and their interior defense spontaneously dissolved. The Rockets missed one shot in the paint in the final quarter. As Houston started taking off from the Bobcats, Charlotte couldn't penetrate back into the paint like they had earlier. As such, they resorted to taking jump shots. Plus it doesn't help that they didn't convert their free throws very well in the fourth (5-for-9).

The worst of it came during a four minute block of game time, they didn't score a single point. In that time, the Rockets scored eight points and didn't look back. It doesn't sound like much after all the runs we've seen opponents go on against the Bobcats in the past couple years, but with the time remaining and the Bobcats' offense severely lacking outside shooting, it was enough.

***

Of course, this the first game of the season; There there are undoubtedly going to be overreactions abound. One game is a small sample size to base much of any extended performance on, but this is our first taste of any of the regular season.

And with that in mind, there will probably overreactions here, too! I'm just trying to describe tonight's performance in earnest, but know I'll try to temper my emotions.

To begin, we'll have to put this game in context. The Rockets have a legitimate star shooting guard in James Harden and some terrific role players. Then they signed superstar big man Dwight Howard this past offseason. And now they're a favorite to make some noise in the postseason in the Western Conference.

So for the Bobcats to hold their ground against a West Conference contender until the final nine minutes, that's not a shabby debut.

Yet, this was not a game without disappointment, depending on your outlook for the team this season.

For those who think or hope the Jefferson signing won't significantly improve the team out of range of great draft position, Jefferson's play must have warmed their hearts. Of course, to be fair, this was Jefferson's first game in weeks since his ankle sprain in preseason against the Heat. Rust is to be expected from players to begin the season, especially those returning after injury. Jefferson certainly didn't look like he was at his best, or even his average, nor did he score like it.

Jefferson's offense is the focal point of his basketball existence, period, and it was rough to watch tonight. He took 19 shots, 13 of which were jumpers from 7 feet out or further. He made three shots in the paint. Granted, when you're going up against a frontcourt defense of Dwight Howard and Omer Asik, you're not going to get many easy looks and good rotations forced the team into bad shots. Still, for a guy who's back-to-the-basket post game is supposed to be one of the best of the league, he didn't show it much. He did have a wicked ball fake in the post that drew Dwight Howard into a foul, though.

Even worse than that was his defense. For those who are buying into Al Jefferson as a significant piece, I hope you have a jump shooter's memory. I'm going to cut him some slack because of his injury, but sweet jeepers, that was awful. He may have recorded two blocks, but those must have been the only two shots he challenged at the rim all night. Basically his man defense in the paint looked like it could be summed up as gently shoving someone and lazily getting a hand up. To his credit, it must have worked a decent amount and he didn't get called for many fouls.

However, one particular play made me quite annoyed. Late in the game, James Harden and Howard ran a high screen and roll against Jeff Taylor and Jefferson. Jefferson came with a double-team on Harden, but it was a little late and Harden slipped the ball to Howard between Taylor and Jefferson. The Rockets had cleared out the entire right side of the floor and there was no way the rotation would come in time. Howard had an easy dunk.

I'm going to try to give myself mental carte blanche for the next game I see, hoping his health will improve some mobility, but I'm not holding my breath.

Another weird part of this game was the disappearance of Kemba Walker. I don't know if the Bobcats were trying to get Jefferson in rhythm or what, but Kemba went from a great scoring performance in the first quarter to nearly falling off the face of the Earth. He took 10 shots all game, six in the first quarter, one in the second, two in the third and one in the fourth. He finished with 13 points on 10 shots, which is decent, but considering the butt-whoopin's he's handed Jeremy Lin in the past (27 points on average), you'd expect him to make ass into grass and his crossover the lawnmower.

I'd also like to briefly mention Cody Zeller's debut. It was rough, as you might expect against a defensive duo like Howard and Asik, but not without encouraging moments. He had a turnover and shot poorly (1-for-6) but he definitely didn't shy away from contact on offense, fighting for rebounds. Better nights are ahead.

***

Anyway, it was a fun game, and a weird one at that. Dwight Howard had a zillion rebounds for crying out loud and the Bobcats hung tight for a long time. The first game of the season could have gone far worse.

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