CHARLOTTE, NC For most of Friday night, the Charlotte Bobcats were done in by their defense; their not-so-good defense.
Call it lackluster, call it weak in the paint, call it strategic miscommunication. Whatever it was, the Philadelphia 76ers took advantage in a 104-98 victory over the home team at Time Warner Arena.
It didn't have to be that way, however. Bobcats coach Mike Dunlap called at least two timeouts to talk to his team about their defense, but the first one didn't really work and the second one had a small effect. He tried some zone and various looks in the man-to-man, but not until late in the third quarter did the Bobcats offer much resistance, especially in the paint.
Dunlap's emphasis when he took over last spring was to focus first on defense. He wanted the team's energy to first be geared toward defense. He wanted the culture to change to where teams struggled to score against the Bobcats. If it meant lower-scoring games because the offense struggled as a result, so be it.
Defense is a mindset, and that's obviously something that hasn't been fully entrenched in the organization's culture yet in his 15th game as the head coach. Dunlap wasn't going to publicly dump on his team, but it was clear defense was the issue Friday night. How else can you explain the 76ers getting 66 points in the paint?
"We can be better," Dunlap said when asked about the defense. It was all he said in response to a question about those points in the paint. He then sat there as silence filled the postgame press conference room. The media was mum, too, perhaps unsure of what to ask next.
Philadelphia converted 55.8 percent of its field goal attempts by halftime and 51.2 percent on the night. There was a drop off in the second half, but not much of one.
"I just thought we could have greeted them a little earlier at three-quarter court and force their sets to start up a little higher," Dunlap said.
Even with the surprising start the Bobcats are now 7-8 with the loss it must be remembered where this team is coming from and what Dunlap and the organization are trying to instill. He sees the positives and growth through the losing, and that the team tied it at 81-81 is an example of when its fight finally caught up with where it needed to be, the Cats were able to push the 10-6 Sixers.
It also required significant help from the bench.
With respect to Ben Gordon, who scored 19 points off the bench and drained three 3-pointers on the night, perhaps the most important substitution Dunlap made was inserting Bismack Biyombo into the game for 7-foot veteran Brendan Haywood in third period.
The 6-9, 245-pound Biyombo is 13 years younger than Haywood and was quicker defending the Sixers' interior. But it wasn't just Philly's bigs, it was the others who got into the lane.
Biyombo, who averages just 3.5 points and 5.2 rebounds in 19.8 minutes per game showed some flashes of what the brass thinks will eventually be more of a consistent thing from him. He finished with 14 points, seven rebounds and three blocked shots in 24 minutes versus the Sixers. It was his best all-around game of the season.
"The main thing going on with Bis is he's improving," Dunlap said. "He's 20 years, so he's getting a nice bite of the apple, so that's one thing that is happening. Two is, I think that we've been very consistent about throwing him the ball, even though sometimes that's been a little dicey. So he knows that regardless of the storms in the early days of his development, we're going to keep going to him.
"And three is he has a physical prowess and power about him. He's a banger, He works to get the ball, and either defense or offense, he's just an active player. We still have to be patient with him, but he's growing for us before our very eyes."
And that's what ultimately matters with this team and franchise. The hot start may have presented the delusion t some that Charlotte is playoff bound, but that's just not likely. Instead, this is a process, and Dunlap will keep that drumbeat going even if nobody is listening.
This isn't a one-year proposition. This is a roll-up-your-sleeves and sink your teeth into the future of the franchise deal.
So the Bobcats may have lost Friday night, and Dunlap may not be pleased with a lot of what he saw, but he still can place a value on what he did like. And that by itself moved the organization forward.