Let's start with the positives.
Tonight's win over the Atlanta Hawks ensured the Bobcats would still have a chance at the sixth playoff seed, following the Wizards' demolition derby in Miami against the Heat. The bench unit was terrific, with the regular second unit shooting a great 16-for-29, and going on a 19-2 run in the fourth quarter to come back from a 15-point deficit. And Chris Douglas-Roberts hit the biggest shot of the night, a miracle of a recovery that found its way into the hoop as the buzzer sounded.
It was a must-win game for the team and fans alike, keeping alive the Bobcats' hope of avoiding the Pacers and Heat in the first round of the playoffs, and ending the franchise's 11-game, three-year losing streak to the Hawks.
Of course, with the positives come the negatives, especially when it comes to this team, and this game was far from a perfectly played contest from the Bobcats' perspective. The non-Al Jefferson starters shot a combined 6-for-27 from the field, with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist actually leading those four in scoring. He had eight points. It's another reason why Al Jefferson is so important; Sometimes, the rest this team just can't hit a gosh dang shot. He didn't earn his numbers through bad decisions and high volume shooting, but with his usual soft-spoken dominance and statistical efficiency: 11-for-17 shooting for 27 points and 15 rebounds? Ho hum. We're used to this.
So that's where the deficits came from, but the big swings in favor of the Bobcats all came from the bench players. Gary Neal was particularly effective, scoring 17 points on 5-for-11 shooting. Luke Ridnour came in and hit his shots, as did Douglas-Roberts. Anthony Tolliver, who saw minutes because of foul trouble to Josh McRoberts and Cody Zeller, hit a pair of threes and played effective defense. Bismack Biyombo played great in his rim protector role, and Zeller succeeded offensively, even if he was a bit outmatched on defense. These six players were instrumental in the comeback effort, and a big part of the reason why the Bobcats were able to hold the Hawks to only 13 points in the fourth quarter.
But since this is the final regular season game that I'll be covering this year, I want to spend a little more time with the player grades in this recap.
Josh McRoberts: McRoberts got himself into foul trouble early, picking up his third with seconds to go in the first half, and being charged with his fourth only a few minutes into the third quarter. He didn't play much after that. While in the game, he was once again a big part of the ball movement, getting four assists in fifteen minutes, but he only hit one of his five shots, which were all three-point attempts. It was only the uncharacteristic foul trouble that made McRoberts play so few minutes, and maybe this will be a nice semi-rest game for him right before the playoffs. Come postseason, I'm sure we'll see him in his usual role, performing just as well as he has since the start of 2014. His passing eye is one of the most important individual skills to the Bobcats, and he'll be needed.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist: Kidd-Gilchrist wasn't given too tough of a defensive assignment tonight, being matched up against Cartier Martin for much of the night. He understandably held Martin to only 3-for-11 scoring from the floor, while leading non-Jefferson Bobcats starters in scoring on the other end of the floor. MKG also grabbed nine rebounds in his 23 minutes, three of which came on the offensive end. It's going to be vital to have a lockdown perimeter defender like Kidd-Gilchrist no matter who the playoff opponent is, and his high-motor style of play is going to be tough for opponents to deal with, especially if he can get looks at the rim.
Al Jefferson: Al Jefferson might not be the first name that comes to mind when you think of great NBA players, but I think it's time we started thinking of him in that category. I can't think of many centers or post-forwards who are as dominant in one area of play as Jefferson is in both scoring and rebounding, and his defensive play has become very valuable within Steve Clifford's system. His line tonight is as far from atypical as they come, and yet that's an absurd figure for what I'm guessing most of us have come to think of as an average game for Big Al, which should cement his status as one of the most consistently great players in the league today. There won't be many big men in the Eastern Conference Playoffs that can stop him, which should bode well for the Bobcats' upset chances no matter the opponent.
Kemba Walker: Kemba Walker had a rough night, shooting only 1-for-9 from the floor and scoring only five points, but he did dish out seven assists. He struggled with allowing Jeff Teague to get open looks from behind the arc, but that was also a problem with the Bobcats' defensive backcourt as a whole, as it has been for much of the year. While Clifford's defensive system doesn't emphasize closing out on three-point shooters as much as many of us would like it to, it's worked for much of the year. That said, with a team offensive performance as poor as tonight's, and with so many missed threes from the Hawks, I think the Bobcats got a little lucky that their opponent wasn't quite on their game in terms of long-range shooting. The Hawks converted only 8 of their 30 attempts from range, and had they converted even one more, the result of tonight's game could have been different.
Gerald Henderson: Henderson mirrored Kemba's 1-for-9 shooting line, but added more rebounds, and fewer assists. While he did prevent his matchup, Lou Williams, from torching the Bobcats defense (he hit only five of 13 attempts), he was even worse on his own offensive end. Henderson's defense has improved a lot this season, becoming a vital part of this lineup on both ends of the court, but he will have struggles on offense from time to time. What's going to be most important is limiting those games, even if it means he becomes less of a pivot point offensively. Thankfully, he has a good basketball IQ and is committed to always improving the team's chances; for a two-guard who can do things with the ball in his hands, he's the furthest thing from a chucker.
Anthony Tolliver: Tolliver's not going to get many minutes anymore, if he enters the game at all, but his goals when he does get to play are consistent: play good defense, guard whoever you have to, and hit some threes. He did a good job of that tonight, getting minutes against unusual bench lineups and making two attempts from three. While I'd definitely like to see him improve his shooting efficiency just a bit (2-for-7 isn't spectacular shooting), his spacing on the offensive end without having to sacrifice defensive size has always seemed pretty valuable to me. I'm admittedly higher on Tolliver than most people who watch this team, but I think I'd like to see him get some playoff minutes in cases where the opponent throws weird lineups at the Bobcats. He's proven himself to be useful.
Cody Zeller: Even in games like tonight where Zeller gets beaten pretty good defensively, he's still a useful player, and that's a big sign of his development. His eight points in 12 minutes are solid proof of his usefulness, and he's becoming a more well-rounded and versatile player, which will help him in the postseason. Zeller doesn't exactly have the prowess of a top-five draft pick just yet, but he's on his way to becoming a quality rotation player. Right now, he's a high-motor asset off the bench who can play well in the right situations. Thankfully, Clifford has been good at putting him in the right situations so far.
Bismack Biyombo: Biyombo's still so young, and still has so much room to reach his potential, but he's a frustratingly inconsistent player in 2014. Tonight he played pretty terrific, playing admirable defense as a key part of the defense that allowed only thirteen points in the fourth quarter, swatting two shots in his thirteen minutes. When he can play quality defense like he did tonight, he's a great asset, as I'm a firm believer that the rim protector is the biggest individual skill a playoff team needs to have in the bench unit. Maybe eventually he'll be a more rounded player, but he's still a productive player as long as he's not over-matched defensively.
Luke Ridnour: I was critical of Ridnour earlier in the season following the Ramon Sessions trade because he was not hitting his shots- but I did make sure to say that his shooting slump would not last forever, and he would be an effective backup point guard once he reverted to his usual self. After tonight's performance (following a streak of quality games), I think it's safe to say that he's playing like himself again. I don't think I'll ever ask for much from him in terms of ball movement, and I'm aware he's not going to be a good defensive player, but if he can make around half of his shots and keep defenses honest by attempting a few threes, I'd be really happy with that. It seems like a pretty attainable goal for the veteran.
Gary Neal: Neal's objectives are even more precise than Ridnour's: score points. Gary Neal was brought to the Bobcats to score points, he is put in the game to score points, and he normally stays on the floor in late-game situations, even during leads, because Clifford doesn't want to remove Neal's scoring ability from the game. It makes sense, and it's paid off so far. He had a strong showing with 17 points in 25 minutes, especially with 5-for-11 shooting, and five free throw attempts. As with Ridnour, I don't expect quality defensive play or good ball movement, but that's acceptable for a player that comes off the bench, assuming he compensates for those deficiencies elsewhere. Neal routinely more than makes up for the areas where he doesn't stack up with his scoring ability.
Chris Douglas-Roberts: Douglas-Roberts didn't do too much tonight, apart from the one-step-short-of-a-miracle shot to win the game at the buzzer. Understatement aside, CDR played his usual solid defense, spread the floor, and just added a little bit of everything to the team. He's a role player without a true role, as "go out there and do everything pretty well" isn't as much a role as it is a good rule for most basketball players to follow, and he does what he does. It typically helps, and every now and then you'll get a lucky buzzer-beater to keep your hopes alive for a much more favorable playoff seed.