There was a lot on the line for the Bobcats on Saturday night. Coming into the game, the team was just one victory away from clinching a playoff spot and essentially completing a remarkable franchise turnaround in the process. With the Wizards also in action tonight, they had a chance to make up ground for the sixth seed.
Their opponent, the Cavaliers, would also be fighting for their playoff lives. Both teams needed big wins for their respective playoff chases, tired legs and all -- both were completing back-to-backs. Despite having much at stake, the game didn't live up to its billing until late, but the Bobcats were able to get the job done.
Both offenses struggled early, yet both teams managed to keep the game close. Kyrie Irving managed to score 11 of the Cavaliers' 21 points and the Bobcats trailed 21-17 heading into the second quarter. Relying solely on one player would eventually derail the Cavaliers in the second quarter as the Bobcats were able to hold Irving scoreless, and their opponent to just 12 points. The Bobcats were able to build their lead behind an 11-2 run and also limited Cleveland to just two field goals in the last five minutes of the half.
Al Jefferson led the Bobcats with nine points and seven rebounds, but was held to just 3-for-9 shooting in the first half. It's not like anyone was really shooting the lights out tonight, though -- outside of Kyrie Irving.
I don't know if Cavaliers coach Mike Brown gave a Gene Hackman-esque speech, a more fire and brimstone one, or simply showed closed-circuit footage of his players' families in his basement, but they managed to score 33 points in the third quarter. Irving led the charge with 16 points and four assists in the quarter, but the Cavaliers only managed to lead by four heading into the fourth.
If this next sentence confuses you, I'm sorry. The fourth quarter was where this game was bad until it wasn't. The Cavaliers were continuing their pace from the previous quarter and led 70-64 before Kemba Walker knocked in the three to bring them back into within three points of the Cavs' lead. When Cleveland's Jarrett Jack tried to answer with a three and fell short, Tristan Thompson grabbed the offensive rebound but missed the putback. Once Chris Douglas-Roberts grabbed the defensive board, the Bobcats called timeout and the game was never the same.
Anthony Tolliver hit the three out of the break to tie it. The two teams would continue to trade blows like prize fighters until the games final seconds when Walker hit a big time three with 32 seconds remaining to give the Bobcats the 82-80 lead. Suddenly, the Bobcats were within seconds of their playoff berth, but then Irving tied the game with 0:25 to go. Walker missed a three towards the end of regulation and we headed to overtime.
And in that overtime, it quickly became the Jefferson versus Irving show. Jefferson scored the Bobcats' first six points and Irving the Cavaliers' first seven as the Cats trailed 89-88 with a minute and a half remaining. Jefferson received some help from Gerald Henderson to give the Bobcats the lead for good, and they would eventually walk away the victors, 96-94.
Saturday night's win was ugly, but ugly wins are scored the same as blowouts in the standings, so it's all the same. Neither team shot over forty percent from the field, but also didn't turn the ball over much, so it was just an off night for both, probably an indication of tired legs suffering from the prior evening. Jefferson finished with 25 points, 15 rebounds and four assists, while Cody Zeller earned his first career double-double. Irving led Cleveland with 44 points, seven rebounds and eight assists with only one other Cavalier scoring in double figures (Dion Waiters).
Tonight's recap took a little while to write because it feels like it was about more than just one night and maybe something that I'm not best-suited to put into words. However, I do know this: after winning just 28 games combined the previous two seasons and being able to follow the turnaround as people came to realize that the Bobcats were no longer a punchline has been great. Really seeing everything fall into place and reading the reactions of excitement from fans has probably been the best part. Now that this is now a playoff team, the days of LOLCATS jokes are gone and the conversation has shifted to how much damage they can do in the postseason. This is why you suffer through the grueling and seemingly hopeless lottery seasons, and we all should enjoy every second. Granted, I've been around for two seasons now, but I still feel an attachment to this team and am excited to cover them into the spring.
With all that being said, the Bobcats' work is not done. Sitting just one game back of the Wizards (they lost Saturday), Charlotte's next game is against Washington on Wednesday. Should the season come down to the wire, a win against Washington would give them a 3-1 season series edge and put them in prime position to jump from seventh to sixth. Wouldn't you be motivated at the thought of playing the Raptors over the Pacers or Heat? I know I would.