CHARLOTTE, NC — When Tyrus Thomas dove for a loose ball heading out of bounds near the baseline in the second quarter Tuesday night against the Washington Wizards, it was clear the collective mindset of the Charlotte Bobcats was to execute at maximum effort.
Thomas saved the ball to a teammate, and about 12 seconds later Ramon Sessions converted a driving layup. It was one of many effort plays the Bobcats made in a 92-76 victory over the fledgling Wizards and was an indication the ‘Cats were dialed in.
First-year Bobcats coach Mike Dunlap is not only fighting the residue of that horrid season hanging over the franchise, but he’s also battling human nature. He understands that always giving effort isn’t easy for anyone, including high-paid athletes.
If a franchise that knows the sound, smell and taste of the bottom, it has no choice but to adopt a new persona, eventually manipulating it into a full-fledged culture. That process is under way in Charlotte, and it begins with defense and the mindset to protect the home turf.
“We want to try to be as tough to beat at home as we can,” said Dunlap, whose team is is 3-1 at home. “So there’s two wins there.
“One, saying defense first, and they’re getting some results from it. And second is just trying to make sure that the fans of Charlotte come back and see a good product and see players that care and will get a little bit dirty in terms of getting on the wood, taking charges and doing the little things that I think the Charlotte fan really appreciates.”
The simplicity of that plan certainly worked on Tuesday. While the Bobcats were a bit lead-footed early, mainly because they were dealing with veteran Matt Carroll’s trade to New Orleans and Ben Gordon’s absence dealing with a family emergency. But it didn’t take too long to get things going.
Consider a few examples:
After Sessions’ fast-break layup put the Bobcats ahead 68-54 with two minutes left in the third quarter, Dunlap was just barely on the court clapping hard, barking encouragement to his team to get a stop, which it did. The bench stood and responded with approval.
With 10:07 left, 7-footer Byron Mullens ruggedly fought off Kevin Seraphin for a loose ball near the baseline, drawing a foul in the process. The often-expressionless Mullens showed a bit of emotion after the whistle blew.
With 7:26 remaining, 6-1, 184-pound point guard Kemba Walker skied for a rebound against beefy Wizards forward Trevor Booker. Walker fell hard to the floor after getting a hand on the ball so Michael Kidd-Gilchrist could snag the missed shot and push the ball up the floor.
Thomas was at it again with 6:40 left to play. He came from out of nowhere to block a would-be dunk by Cartier Martin. Thomas awkwardly crashed to the floor, igniting a loud ovation from the appreciative crowd.
Similar examples were on display all night. Wing guard Gerald Henderson, who is out with an injury but has a terrific view of the team’s effort, said this is who the Bobcats are becoming.
“Coach has implemented, since the day he got here, that we’re going to be a scrappy team,” Henderson said. “For us, every game is going to be a dog fight, so we have to have a lot of energy, always helping each other and just bringing it every night.”
For NBA players who must navigate the grind of an 82-game regular season schedule plus training camp and exhibition games, surely there will be times when they just aren’t there. That’s human nature. But the Bobcats have embraced fighting it with open arms.
“We’ve got to have experiences like we did tonight where our volume got up and I think there was a collective effort we can continue to build on,” Dunlap said.
For the season, Charlotte has three wins in six games and back-to-back wins for the first time since last December. A year ago, the Bobcats finished with just seven victories in 66 games. Apparently, Dunlap’s approach is working.