Analysis: Should the Bobcats want the 6 or 7 playoff seed?

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The primary goal for their season has been accomplished: The Bobcats are in the playoffs. Up next, Charlotte can focus on its playoff seed, while pondering how far the club can advance in a top-heavy Eastern Conference.

"Wonderful feeling to be in the playoffs but work’s not done. We’ve still got a ways to go," said Bobcats big man Al Jefferson. "We still feel like we have a chance to move up. We’re not trying to get in the playoffs and get swept. We want to make some noise in the playoffs."

The Bobcats have already made noise by reaching the postseason. It’s quite a leap forward for a franchise that won a combined 28 games the previous two seasons (2011-13), making the playoffs … while higher-expectation clubs from the preseason — like the New York Knicks, Detroit Pistons and Cleveland Cavaliers — will presumably be sitting at home once the regular season ends.

Even with Charlotte signing Jefferson last offseason, reaching the playoffs was an ambitious notion.

"If you saw the locker room the other night, it wasn’t crazy, but they were really happy and really pleased and they deserve it," head coach Steve Clifford said. "They’ve worked hard. They’ve had to fight hard all year to get here, and I feel like it’s a group that we win for the right reasons. We defend, we rebound, we play unselfishly, and we’ve been rewarded for that."

Charlotte currently sits seventh in the Eastern Conference, but a 4-0 week suddenly has club within shouting distance of the No. 6 seed. As of Tuesday, the Bobcats (39-38) trail the Wizards (40-37) by one game but own the tiebreaker over Washington — thanks to a 2-1 advantage in head-to-head encounters.

Whichever club draws the No. 6 seed is looking at a potential series matchup with the Toronto Raptors (Atlantic Division leaders) or Chicago Bulls.

"I think the most important goal is just to be playing our best basketball. We want to win out the rest of our games and be playing our best basketball when the regular season ends," said Gerald Henderson. "If that means we move up to the six spot because of that, that’d be a great thing; but regardless we’re still going to have to play some tough basketball in the playoffs whoever we play against. We’ll just see how it plays out. But definitely moving up to the six spot would be a great thing."

That’s the message coming straight from the top, and Clifford has no plans to rest his starters over the next two weeks. He wants his team gelling heading into the playoffs and isn’t over-concerned about fatigue — since an off day follows nearly every playoff outing.

"To do something of significance, you have to be at the top of your game. It doesn’t matter who you play. They’re all good teams," Clifford said. "And you can’t spend any time worrying about seven, six. It doesn’t matter. We need to be playing as well as we can. That’s what we should be focusing on."

Coachspeak aside, matchups matter and some fit teams better than others. The Bobcats are 1-3 against the Pacers and 0-2 against the Bulls. Meanwhile, they’re 3-0 against the Raptors.

That’s a small sample size, however, and two of the Indiana losses came from the team that started 33-7 — not the one backing into the playoffs by losing eight of 11 games. Since that excellent 40-game start, the Pacers are just 20-18 and trailed the visiting Atlanta Hawks by 32 points at halftime (55-23) on Sunday night.

So, the potential jump to the 6-seed looks less enticing with each passing week … and going into Bankers Life Fieldhouse (Indy) and potentially stealing a road game suddenly doesn’t look so daunting.

That recent slide has the Pacers tied with the Bobcats in points per game (96.7). Indiana (2nd overall) and Charlotte (5th) both own top-five rankings in scoring defense, as well. Meanwhile, the Raptors are 7-3 and the Bulls are 8-2 over their last 10 games. Toronto has a middle-of-the-road offense to go with the NBA’s 7th-ranked scoring defense, while the Bulls have the league’s best scoring defense (91.6 points) and worst scoring offense (93.4 ppg).

It begs the question: Is a jump to the 6th slot really better for the Bobcats?

"The team that gave us the most trouble this year is Atlanta, and they have a worse record than us," Henderson said. "You see it in the NBA all the time, a certain team isn’t playing that well [for a stretch]. You’ve seen it with Indiana. They’re losing to teams that haven’t been as good as them this year, but for a stretch they’re not playing as well, but that’s the NBA. We don’t really look at that."

Clifford said it’s hard to ascertain why a team, like Indiana, is sliding while the Bulls are rising — without being intimate with each club on a daily level.

"Well, obviously, the games that we’ve struggled the most are when our post-up game isn’t good," Clifford said. "We are reliant very much on (Jefferson) to score the ball. We’ve played all year against pretty much any and all types of schemes and things they can do, so I feel like we have experience against everything."

That’s no secret, though, and somehow, some way the franchise that has never won a playoff game will have to win on the road to advance in the postseason. The Bobcats’ 16-22 road record would give one pause, but Clifford believes that to be a misnomer.

Charlotte played well in road losses to Miami, Indiana, Houston, and Oklahoma City. Jefferson said Clifford let the Bobcats celebrate in the locker room after clinching in Cleveland, but he’s back to acting as if they hadn’t made the playoffs, still striving for more and more from this team.

It’s part of the reason Clifford’s a viable Coach of the Year candidate. Additional credit goes to the club’s improved mind-set on the rebounding and defensive fronts.

"Obviously, (you’ve) got to score in the playoffs in the half-court — very important — but if you can stop teams from scoring, you’ll always have a chance because it’s low scoring and (other teams) are not able to pull away from you."