CHARLOTTE, NC — One of the brilliant decisions new Charlotte Bobcats coach Mike Dunlap made in the offseason was to not let the franchise run from its record-setting season of futility from a year ago.
Dunlap wanted them to own it. He personally embraced it, adopting all of its warts because he knew the only way to truly move on was for everyone to understand the steps required to cut that cord.
Moments following the Bobcats thrilling 90-89 victory over the Indiana Pacers on opening night Friday at Time Warner Arena, Dunlap laid it right out there:
“The most important thing was to kill the elephant,” he said.
The elephant was the team’s 23-game losing streak to end last season, which concluded with a 7-59 mark, good for the worst winning percentage in NBA history.
Charlotte slayed the psychological beast Friday while taking a healthy step in the right direction. It’s just one game, but this is a different team, and in many respects it’s a different franchise with owner Michael Jordan taking a back seat, a new uniform look and an abundance of smiles at every turn.
To be different, however, the team must change its characteristics from last season. With that, several improvements stood out, beginning with the play of second-year point guard Kemba Walker.
Walker, who averaged 12.4 points per game as a rookie, shared the job with D.J. Augustin a year ago while also dabbling at the two-guard. But it’s his now, and Dunlap — who has an intimate understanding of Walker’s strengths, which weren’t always on display last season — made sure Walker approached the game as he did in college.
“Kemba, whatever he was last year, and I looked at a lot of film,” said Dunlap, who was an assistant at St. John’s when Walker played at Connecticut. “There was more to come of what I was used to when I was in the Big East and had to coach against him. So I knew that better days were ahead.”
Walker finished with 30 points and three assists, but his aggressiveness taking the ball inside the lane, often getting to the rim, was extremely uplifting to a team that easily could have spent the night looking for a spark.
“I felt really good and really comfortable,” said Walker, who smiled when asked about Dunlap trusting him.
Fourth-year wing Gerald Henderson was just 6-for-14 from the field, but his jumper is more fluid and he carries himself like an experienced veteran. Charlotte will need his stroke, attitude and controlled disposition nightly as the season wears on.
Equally impressive is what the three new veterans gave the Cats. Eleven-year vet Brendan Haywood and his 7-foot frame disrupted in the lane and gave the team 31 very professional minutes. In addition, wings Ben Gordon (10 points) and Ramon Sessions (11 points) did many of the little things that lead to victories. Sessions’ 3-pointer with 4:56 left put the Cats up 88-84 and held off an Indiana spurt.
Collectively, the trio gave the Bobcats 75 minutes of gravitas that simply didn’t exist last season. Their presence and what they can do for this team can’t be overlooked.
“It’s very important having those guys, they are really experienced,” Walker said. “We all learn a lot from those guys… It’s extremely important to have those guys around.”
The other notable difference came on the defensive end. Indiana converted just 39.8 percent of its field goal attempts, and at crunch time the Bobcats really stepped it up.
Charlotte scored its final points with 3:28 left to lead 90-85, and the Pacers closed to within a point with 2:01 remaining. After that, however, the Cats held Indiana to 0-3 from the floor, including a blocked shot, and three turnovers, including a shot-clock violation.
A year ago, no way the Bobcats would have closed out a team after not scoring over the game’s final 208 seconds. But, as their new coach said, this isn’t that team.
“I think the players themselves are responsible for that,” Dunlap said. “We’ve had long practices, and I think when you invest that much in it there’s just an emotional attachment to the fact that we want to get this done… I think this is a different team, also.”
That’s it right there: Investment.
The Bobcats have made this personal, even if they had nothing to do with last season’s disaster. That’s part of the design of this team and franchise in addition to how the roster was composed and their on-court approach is prescribed.
Regardless of what happens moving forward, that’s a healthy step in the right direction.