In some games this year, the Charlotte Bobcats have looked unusually disciplined, almost to the point of looking like a veteran team. But you can't play the Wizards without John Wall and Nene every night.
There were certainly plenty of those moments tonight in the narrow last-minute defeat to the Hawks in Atlanta. However, Charlotte vacillated between diligent attention to detail and unforced sloppiness all night. You expect as much from a young team starting two rookies and a second-year guard, but that doesn't make it any easier to swallow, especially in a close game like this.
The first minutes were a great example of sloppiness that has doomed the Bobcats on both sides of the ball. The zone defense rotations were all over the place and by positioning themselves in the zone closer to the interior, they gave Atlanta more than their fair share of open threes. The Hawks capitalized early, hitting three of their first four treys.
The game took on a different tone following the Hawks' early 11-2 lead. In that span, the Bobcats had two turnovers. After that, they had only four turnovers in the rest of the half. The Hawks couldn't hit a thing and Kemba Walker began to start knocking down some shots. The first quarter ended with a Bobcats 16-9 run.
The Bobcats' three point defensive weaknesses again shone through in the second quarter, especially corner threes. But though Charlotte was giving the Hawks plenty of open threes, the Bobcats made up for it with improved offensive efficiency. Ramon Sessions was Ramon Sessions, for better or for worse. Sessions really excels in drawing contact in the paint but has ill-advised confidence in his three-point shot. His previous season's deep shooting is looking more and more like an outlier. Regardless, Sessions gave the Bobcats a much-needed scoring boost tonight. Byron Mullens and Haywood even got going a bit here, helping the Bobcats create offensive space and giving the offense room to pass inside and out. This was also the quarter where Mullens had a vicious putback dunk. The half ended on a Bobcats 13-8 run with the Bobcats leading at the break, 45-43.
After a mostly well-controlled first half, the Bobcats squandered their lead and strong play by being careless. They more than doubled their turnovers in the third quarter alone. Plagued by bad passes, offensive fouls and poor shot selection, the Bobcats took 11 fewer field goal attempts than Atlanta. Not all was due to the Bobcats' youthful ineptitude, though. Atlanta is a very good defensive team and their defensive rotations tightened up, forcing the Bobcats into turnovers or ineffective ball movement that failed to create good shots. Josh Smith was all over the place and began to hit his stride on offense, knocking down some jumpers and even some in the paint. The Hawks regained the lead and took a six-point lead into the final quarter.
The first shot of the fourth quarter would bode well for the Bobcats, as Ben Gordon hit his third of seven shots from downtown. The Hawks often seemed well in control of the game, stretching their lead to double digits but Ben Gordon was basically unstoppable. One of his threes was something out of a videogame, except no videogame player could have hit the sprawling extremely-contested shot in double-coverage.
Yet Atlanta was maintaining some distance, especially with Zaza Pachulia bodying up the Bobcats' frontcourt and muscling his way in for offensive rebounds. Louis Williams was finding success in the paint, too.
Ben Gordon was having none of it, though. Gordon drained threes and drew fouls, putting the Bobcats back in the game single-handedly. In a moment that would later prove heartbreaking, however, Bismack Biyombo failed to convert a layup from two feet out. The ball stalled at the apex of the rim for what seemed like seconds. Biyombo jumped back up, tapped the ball in and was called for offensive goaltending (note: this would not be goaltending in European basketball rules). It would be moments like that that doomed the Bobcats' comeback effort tonight.
Charlotte's errors in the final minutes were momentous. It began with the Bobcats down 92-88 with 1:25 remaining. The shot clock slipped away as the ball remained in Ramon Sessions' hands, eventually resulting in a Bismack Biyombo jump shot from near the free throw line. Thankfully for the Bobcats' chances, Josh Smith missed both of his free throw attempts at the other end of the court. Ben Gordon then pulled Charlotte within a point with half a minute left on the game clock. The Hawks drained the shot clock for an errant Louis Williams three-point attempt.
With five seconds left, the Bobcats had enough time remaining to get a good look for a win on the road, only down a point. They had a hot hand in Gordon at the moment and a cold-blooded threat in Walker, who could also draw a foul if needed.
The only problem was inbounding the ball. Josh Smith read the play perfectly and closed the space for Ramon Sessions to pass. The ball went just past Smith's outstretched arm and out of bounds on the other side of the court. The refs reviewed the play to see if Smith touched it, but found no conclusive evidence to overturn the call.
Even after two Horford free throws, the Bobcats still had a shot now down three with four seconds left. Once again, the inbounds proved troublesome. Atlanta's pressure prevented Gordon and Reggie Williams from getting looks at a gamewinner. Instead, Byron Mullens was the only open option. He caught the pass, turned and shot an incredibly tough contested three over a couple defenders. Unfortunately, Mullens forgot to drink the magic Space Jam juice and left his game-worn Calvin Cambridge basketball shoes at home. The shot missed and Atlanta escaped with the win.
Despite all the errors, it's hard to be too displeased with the loss. The Hawks are not the holders of the current longest winning streak for nothing. The Bobcats showed their heart and we got an exciting finish, even if frustrating. It happens to young teams, and I'd rather have this with concerted effort every game than a roster with more veterans and lacking effort.
Josh Smith is really fun to watch, speaking as someone who is not a fan of the Hawks. He's the embodiment of YOLO, putting up long jumpers as the home crowd groans in unison and throwing down insanely acrobatic dunks. The hilarity he brings is also impressive, shown tonight when he grabbed an offensive rebound over a few Bobcats and then lobbed a kick out pass to the scorer's table.
Byron Mullens truly is the patronus of this team. That's not to say he's the bellwether indicator of the team's success, but he is the team's spirit animal. He's improved his effort on both sides of the ball and now rebounds better, but still is very much prone to mental errors, careless passes and poor shot selection. EXPECTO PATRONUM! /patronus byron shoots basketballs at enemies from 25 feet away