Sometimes, you never find out just how good you are.
It was just one year ago that the Bobcats were widely considered one of the worst teams in the NBA. They sported a combined winning percentage of just 23.3 the last two seasons, but after a summer of retooling that included the signing of Al Jefferson and hiring of head coach Steve Clifford, the Bobcats quickly improved and found themselves in this year's playoffs. Unfortunately, their first-round match-up is the Miami Heat.
Still, this was an opportunity to showcase their much improved team to an oblivious national audience, and the Bobcats entered tonight's game with confidence and a certain bravado that highlighted their bright future.
Behind Al Jefferson's eight-point, two-rebound onslaught in the first quarter, the Bobcats actually led the Heat 23-19 before the break. However, Jefferson hurt his left foot on a seemingly mundane play and was escorted to the Bobcats' locker room. The team's doctor diagnosed him with a strained plantar fascia (the long muscle that runs under the foot), and while he did return, Jefferson was noticeably hurt. He finished the game with a respectable 18 points and 10 rebounds, an impressive feat considering the nature of his injury.
The Heat were savvy and quickly took advantage of Jefferson's lack of mobility, attacking the paint on every offensive possession in the second quarter. This led to 12 points in the paint and 10 free throw attempts for the Heat in the period, a sure sign that momentum was shifting. With solid performances from Josh McRoberts and Gary Neal, though, the Bobcats kept the game within a few possessions and at the half were down 49-42.
Oh, and this.
In the third, the Bobcats continued to keep the game close despite playing from behind for most of the quarter. Kemba Walker (20 points, six assists, five rebounds) led an 11-0 run that forced the Heat's Erik Spoelstra to call a timeout as the Bobcats regained the lead just a few minutes into the third. However, LeBron James (27 points, nine rebounds) began to take charge and kept the Bobcats at bay with timely, difficult baskets. The Bobcats' defense was starting to fall apart, evident in the disparity in free throw attempts growing (26-12 at the end of the game) and the Heat's field goal percentage rising.
And then this happened in the fourth.
The fourth quarter began with the Bobcats fighting to stay in the game, but they were soon overwhelmed by an 18-4 run led by Dwyane Wade (23 points, five assists) and key baskets from Miami's role players. Demoralized, the Bobcats began to jog back on defense and their offense stagnated. James Jones scored a few layups. It was that bad.
But what if Jefferson had stayed healthy?
We'll never know. Thankfully, Jefferson has a few days of rest that will hopefully allow his foot to heal a bit. Chances are he will not fully recover until after the playoffs are over, as injuries to the plantar fascia are typically slow to heal. That means others will need to step up.
If this afternoon's game was any indication, the Bobcats can hang with the Heat if they're motivated and focused. Their margin for error is admittedly very small, and for a team with such little playoff experience -- and NBA experience, for that matter -- it's unfair to expect perfection. Things like Michael Kidd-Gilchrist getting into foul trouble and subsequently only playing 14 minutes, however, need to be addressed. A common problem for the Bobcats tonight was matching up with LeBron James. Sure, it's a hard thing to do for any team, but the Bobcats only have Chris Douglas-Roberts and Gerald Henderson to guard LeBron if MKG is on the bench. Jeff Taylor, the Bobcats miss you.
All in all, game one was anything but a failure. The Bobcats were dealt a crappy hand against a formidable opponent and still managed to keep the game close until the final minutes. Few (if any) analysts expect the Bobcats to win this series, and I'm sure most fans agree with that ascertainment. The Bobcats are a young and inexperienced team in just their first year of being "good", and what this playoff berth should do is instill a hunger -- a craving, even -- to be in the playoffs. Four to seven games against the best of the best is a blessing to a young team, and they've shown today that they're not the team they were just two years ago.
Game two is on Wednesday, April 23 at 7:00 p.m. EST.