CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Charlotte Bobcats (14-15) sit below .500 but still in fifth place in the wasteland that is the NBA’s Eastern Conference. The Bobcats got a critical win Monday night to maintain their standing by defeating one of the NBA’s worst teams — the Milwaukee Bucks (6-22) in overtime 111-110.
The Bucks’ Khris Middleton hit a fadeaway from the corner at the buzzer that would have tied it up to end overtime, but his foot was ruled inside the three-point line, and the Bobcats skated away with a narrow victory heading into Friday’s big home matchup with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Here are four thoughts from the win:
1. The Bobcats continue to show resiliency we didn’t see out of this team in previous years with another big comeback.
Traditionally, the comeback teams in the NBA are the one with major offensive firepower that can throw a flood of points on you in a hurry. Charlotte’s far from that — ranking last in the league in points per game (91.8) — but the Bobcats are starting to prove to everyone in the league that this team doesn’t lack for fight, coming back from at least 16 points down in three of their last four games.
The deficit in Toronto was as high as 16, and as high as 20 in Detroit, before Milwaukee popped up to an 18-point lead Monday.
"I mean we don’t like getting down early like that, but it happens," Kemba Walker said. "We’re just showing our resiliency. We’re a tough team, and we’re showing that when we get down, we’re not out. We’re just going to keep fighting. The game’s never over, especially in this league."
Monday night’s effort easily could have been a comeback blown, too, when O.J. Mayo sent it to overtime with a deep three with one second left in regulation off of a kick out after an offensive rebound.
"I think our guys did a good job of obviously when you get a guy makes a three like that where you get a stop and then there’s a loose ball and guy knocks it in, easily they could have put their heads down," head coach Steve Clifford said. "I think that’s the strength of the group — the fight."
It’s also a group that seems to be slowly learning how to play with their best player — Al Jefferson (26 points, 9 rebounds).
True post players are a dying breed in the league today, and Gerald Henderson said in the preseason that many players on the team had never even played with a true back-to-the-basket scorer like Jefferson in high school, college or the NBA, so it was going to be a work in progress. Over Jefferson’s last four games, he’s putting up 23.2 points and 11.2 rebounds per, but perhaps more importantly, he’s averaging 21 shot attempts — 5.4 more than his season average.
That starts with spacing but also evolves with learning how to move off of Jefferson and how to best exploit when the double comes based off of where it’s coming from.
"We’re all a lot better now with Al, playing inside out, still learning to cut off of him and find different ways to get him the basketball," Walker said.
2. Is one of the league’s top defenses starting to regress?
As pleasing as four wins in the last five games can be, coach Steve Clifford’s a bit concerned. The trademarks are slipping, and they can’t afford that with a home date with Oklahoma City Friday and a road date in Atlanta Saturday.
"Losing our way a little bit defensively and rebounding, haven’t been quite as good these last five or six games, just the mistakes were making more than anything else," Clifford said. "I don’t know if that’s five [games] in seven nights, so maybe we’re a little fatigued but we have to straighten that out before Friday."
The league’s second stingiest scoring defense in the league (93 points per game allowed) has allowed 101.5 points per game over the last four, and they have been outrebounded in three of those four games. That doesn’t seem like a reason to sound the alarm considering they’ve won three of those games, but those areas are how they overcome their lack of offense. Sure, losing Michael Kidd-Gilchrist kills you on the boards and defensively, but the pieces are in place to be better Clifford said.
"To be honest with you on the defense and the rebounding, the guys on the floor are capable of a lot better. They know that," Clifford said. "Even the other night and in Detroit, we are making mistakes on cuts and coverages that we haven’t made all year, and again, I told the guys at halftime you can’t take being a good defensive team for granted. We were good because every guy was doing his job and they were tied together and we were getting away from that. We’re not built that way. If we’re not going to defend and rebound, we’re not going to win a lot of games."
That’s something to watch with this team going forward: Can their defense remain at the top of the league or are they bound for a regression? Their rebounding margin has steadily declined throughout the year and now they rank 15th in rebounding margin after spending the first half of the year in the top six. Those two areas have sparked this turnaround this season and are keys for the Bobcats being able to hold on to a playoff spot the remainder of the year with a schedule that leans more towards Western Conference opponents going forward than it has early in the season.
3. Kemba Walker’s becoming the offensive threat this team desperately needs.
What in the world has gotten into Kemba Walker? â¨â¨Over his last six games, his stat line reads: 26 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 5.2 assists. But it’s not just the stats, it’s the efficiency in doing so over that stretch, shooting 58.5 percent from the floor and 50 percent from three (14-28).
"Man, I’m just playing ball, making shots, been working on my shot a lot," he said. "I’m just out there doing whatever’s possible to win basketball games."
He did it all Monday night with 25 points, 9 rebounds, and 10 assists including 7 points in overtime.
"He’s putting so much extra work in," Clifford said. "You can tell he’s gaining confidence in his shot."
â¨It’s not that the desire to put in the extra work wasn’t there in previous years, Walker said, but it’s more about understanding the season and knowing when it’s prudent and when it’s not to get shots up. It’s like any job basically, a growing efficiency with time.
"In the past, I just didn’t know how to manage my time, I think. With getting extra shots up and things like that, I was always tired," he said as an approving Jefferson nodded his head to the left of Walker. "Now that I’m in my third year, I’m kind of managing my time a little better, knowing when to take my days off and when to get in the gym. I’m just staying in the gym a lot, trying to take care of my body and keep on shooting well."
4. Zeller’s starting to show signs of getting more comfortable out there.
It wasn’t a watershed breakout moment for Cody Zeller Monday, but it was definitely his best game as a Bobcat. He’s looked lost for much of the year and done little to prove the Bobcats prudent in selecting him over stashing away an increasingly valuable rim protector in Nerlens Noel.
However, rookies take time in the NBA to adjust, and Monday night he looked like he was starting to find his way. He’s still insanely inefficient at the rim, shooting 47.7 percent heading into tonight’s game from inside eight feet — way below the league average for big men — and he was only 2-of-5 from that area Monday. However, he seems more comfortable with his mid-range shot recently and knocked down 4-of-7 from 16 to 23 feet Monday. He finished with 12 points and 7 rebounds in only 22 minutes.
"That was Cody Zeller’s best game on both ends of the floor," Clifford said.
That’s critical for this team because Clifford wants to get Zeller to around 20 minutes per night. He said he’d like to top Josh McRoberts out at about 28 minutes per game because he’s constantly giving up strength against opposing starting power forwards and really has to battle out there, so he wants to save him for later in the season. And he’s starting to see the growth in Zeller needed to do so.
"Offensively, he’s much more on the attack. I think he’s much more comfortable with certain phases of the game where he knows he can use his quickness," Clifford said. "I think his rebounding effort particularly on the offensive end has gone way up.
"The level of his play is gradually going up week by week."