Basketball, like life, is better with a sense of balance.
It’s tough these days for the Charlotte Bobcats to be balanced. Their top four scorers are all guards. Their big man with the most offensive skill, Byron Mullens, is out indefinitely with a sprained ankle. In Mullens’ absence, no power forward or center averages more than 7.4 points per game.
That imbalance was a factor in the Bobcats blowing a 12-point lead at home Monday against the Houston Rockets. The Rockets outscored the Bobcats 26-13 in the fourth quarter.
Houston coach Kevin McHale said his fourth-quarter strategy was simple: Trap the ball out of point guard Kemba Walker’s hands and force the ball toward Bobcats center Bismack Biyombo.
Telling, huh? Biyombo shot 1-of-5 Monday and never took a shot in the eight minutes he played in the fourth quarter. He’s an offensive liability, but at some point the Bobcats have to present some sort of post-up game, or teams will trap Walker and fellow point guard Ramon Sessions with impunity.
“That time is now,” said coach Mike Dunlap hopefully.
Dunlap didn’t mean he could magically fix the offensive limitations of his big men. He did mean it’s important that the guards trust and pass to the big men to create some floor balance.
With Mullens out (he’s a “long ways away,” Dunlap said Monday), the next-best big-man scorer is power forward Hakim Warrick. He arrived in a trade early this season from the New Orleans Hornets. It took him a while to catch on to the Bobcats’ system, but he’s started 12 of Charlotte’s past 13 games. He’s scored 10 or more points in five of the past six games, so Warrick understands what they need from him.
“I’ve got to be aggressive to take some pressure off those guys, particularly (Kemba). Guys are doubling, trying to get the ball out of his hands,” Warrick said. “I’ve got to keep them honest – take a little bit of load off.”
Warrick said some of this is about tempo – that when the Bobcats run, their relative lack of size is less of a disadvantage. Biyombo might not be much offensively in the half-court, but his ability to run the fast break turns him into more of a finisher.
“When we slow down, that’s when it really hurts us,” Warrick said. “When we’re out running, our bigs are so athletic they can be effective. That means getting some stops” to engage the running game.
The problem Monday, Dunlap noted, was the Rockets kept drawing shooting fouls. They got to the foul line 14 times in that decisive quarter. That made for easy scoring chances. It also negated the Bobcats’ running game, since a made free throw is the hardest dead-ball situation to start a break.
Walker, who scored a career-high 35 points Monday, was hard on himself post-game for not better attacking the Rockets’ traps. Walker didn’t have a single assist in 10 fourth-quarter minutes.
Shooting guard Gerald Henderson said this is not all Walker’s problem, that it’s incumbent on everyone else to make themselves a better target for Walker’s passes. “That’s something that comes with experience,” Henderson said.
Experience isn’t a Bobcats strength. As president of basketball operations Rod Higgins noted last week, this team’s youth is both a strength and a weakness, as far as knowing how to close out games.
The numbers are striking : The Bobcats’ first 41 games – half the season – represent 205 player starts. Six players with four or fewer seasons of NBA experience – rookies Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Jeff Taylor, plus Walker, Biyombo, Mullens and Henderson – made 173 of those 205 starts.
As co-captain Henderson said, “We’re having some growing pains.”