As is often the case with NBA scheduling, mercy is in short supply. The guys have been dealing with some especially hard knocks of late. Perhaps, the scheduling gods thought, the time is ripe for an away/home back-to-back. Starting things off is a trip up to Milwaukee for a game against the streaking Bucks. Luckily for the Bobcats, the “Deer” have been streaking in the same direction as the felines, having lost 7 out of 9. This is a road game that should be ours for the taking if the Cats play to potential. As much as I enjoy new facets to the Bobcats pre-game show, Coach Dunlap’s keys to the game descriptions were unusually vague. “Know thy personnel. As their guards go, so do they go.” Hmm. Perhaps Coach’s comments would become less cryptic sounding as the game progressed. Here’s how it all went down:
From the opening tip, it seemed like the evening was going to be all Bucks. Charlotte came out hesitant on offense, willing to settle for long range jumpers and perimeter bombs rather than stretch out the defense with passing and screens. Milwaukee quickly took advantage and Marquis Daniels lit the house up in the early going by scoring in double-digits, staking the Bucks to a quick 15-point lead. Coach Dunlap sent a squad of towel boys back to the locker room and even out to the team bus in an effort to find where the guys left their defensive game, but as the quarter ended it was still nowhere to be found. Milwaukee had their way at both ends of the court, cruising to a scorching lead 33-20.
In a situation more common to last season’s team than the current squad, the Bobcats soon saw themselves staring at a long uphill climb. The Bucks at times led by as many as 19 before Michael Kidd-Gilchrist began leading the slow climb to competitiveness by scoring three quick baskets. At the midpoint of the quarter, the lead had shrunk to an even dozen. The Bucks fine-tuned their intensity and stole the ball twice in a row for fast break scores. The second involved a flagrant foul by Brendan Haywood on Brandon Jennings. The replays clearly showed that Haywood accidentally clotheslines Jennings, and Haywood even offered an apologetic handshake afterward, but the call was justified and Jennings was visibly angered. There are a couple of ways veteran players around the league respond to getting hammered in the lane. One is to turn around and garner a technical foul or three by repaying the favor. Jennings opted to quietly take his in-game efforts up a large notch, firing laser passes into the paint and elevating the shot percentages for every other Bucks player on the court. As a result the lead grew back to 18 in a hurry.
It doesn’t take long for word to spread in the NBA and the word is out that the Bobcats defense is very susceptible to a weak-side rotation. Until Coach Dunlap and company find a way to correct the problem, opposing teams are going to take full advantage. There is a visible effort on the part of the Cats to fix it, but there is still a tendency to be slow to react. The problem there is that if it takes an extra second to adjust it leaves the lanes into the paint wide open. Accordingly, Milwaukee would either rotate to the weak side or power the ball into the post for a quick bucket. As the half reached a close, the Bucks were on an unstoppable pace, scoring in torrents and giving Coach Dunlap a lot of adjusting to do in a short halftime break. At the half, the Cats were on the verge of getting blown out and the Bucks were suddenly feeling revitalized. Halftime score had the Felines down big, 40-58.
Had the Cats mounted a comeback in the third quarter this would have been the longest and most animated section of the recap. I’ll keep it merciful and brief. The lead grew to 24 with just over four minutes left when Byron Mullens came up lame by the ankle and requested to be taken out. Roughly 40 seconds later, Kidd-Gilchrist hit the floor after a rough drive to the hoop and was very slow to shake it off. For the next several possessions the game resembled a Punch & Gilchrist puppet show. MKG would drive and get pounded. At quarter’s close the score after three was 86-61 in favor of the Bucks.
What can be said about the fourth quarter? Well… it was the same length as the other three time-wise… it featured the same teams. Any NBA fan knows that it is in the fourth quarter that the team trailing will make a run at the leader and attempt to steal the game. The Bobcats managed to cut the lead down to 11. Of course, there was less than a minute remaining in the game, so it was largely moot. All that remained to be decided was the final score which, if you still care, was 108-93 Bucks.
Some will say this recent string of losses is merely our young Bobcats coming back to earth. Others will say it’s a reflection of the schedule. In fact, I’ve heard these very comments from staff members here at TSP. I still disagree. We are a young team with a big problem. There is a rather large gap in our defense and the rest of the league is aware of it. This allows a team of middling capacity such as the Bucks to rip into us to the tune of a 30-plus point lead. Much of what happens to the team in the next week will be decided by the speed with which the coaching staff implements the corrective measures necessary to shore up that weakness. Until the team becomes adept at quick rotation to the weak-side that also protects the passing lane into the post, the Bobcats will not post another victory. If the next several games don’t reflect drastic improvement on that level the Cats will leave on their toughest road trip of the young season facing the real possibility of an almost winless December.
I’ll be very honest here. For fans of the team this season will, in some ways, be more difficult than the last one. It will be a season in which we will see tantalizing glimpses of the future. There will be games of magical brilliance as MKG, Biyombo, Mullens, and company emerge from the mistakes of youth and string together what amount to previews of coming attractions. Along with that will come stretches of massive frustration. It doesn’t take very long for teams to realize how to exploit the smallest of weaknesses in an opponent. As the Cats continue to grow, skill gaps – especially at the defensive end – will manifest. The fact that we have a rookie coach is a double-edged sword. He definitely has the skills and ingenuity necessary to steer this club and his enthusiasm for the job is contagious. But the edge that cuts its owner’s hand is that he doesn’t have the experience needed to anticipate some of the growing pains his players will face in the coming months. Additionally, his boss has decided that patience is the biggest asset. Michael Jordan realizes that his ability to swallow his frustrations could well mean the difference between a flash-in-the-pan contender and a team that could build a small dynasty that will last several seasons at least.
Hopefully the team won’t sink into the deep depressive funk that seemed to follow them for much of last season. In less than 24 hours the scheduling gods have arranged for another matchup. At least this one will take place back where the guys are most comfortable, down on Trade Street.