BOSTON The Charlotte Bobcats are in the playoffs. They’re one victory away from the second .500-or-better season in franchise history. They now have the inside track on sixth seed in the East.
What’s next? What’s left?
They have four games left in the regular season. If the Bobcats finish sixth, they are likely to play the Toronto Raptors or Chicago Bulls, tied for the third-best record in the East. Seemingly they would be better off against the Raptors, since they’ve won 11 of the last 14. However, it’s dangerous to assume those regular-season results carry over to the playoffs, particularly since the Bobcats and Raptors haven’t played since January.
If they finish seventh, they would play the Indiana Pacers or Miami Heat, whichever team finishes second. They have lost 15 in a row to the Heat. They are 1-2 against the Pacers, including a 22-point victory.
Friday the Bobcats play the Boston Celtics, who have lost nine in a row after blowing a nine-point, fourth-quarter lead to the Atlanta Hawks Wednesday. The Celtics are 23-54 and probably can’t wait for this dreadful season to be over.
And yet the Celtics’ nine-point fourth-quarter lead gave Bobcats coach Steve Clifford ammunition Thursday to remind his players this is no time to take any opponent for granted.
“Everybody said we played a ‘big game’ last night,” Clifford said of overtaking the Wizards in the standings. “But this could be just as big – they had a lead in the fourth quarter over a team fighting to make the playoffs.
“You don’t think those guys are sick of losing?”
That comment speaks to Clifford’s frequent effort to fine-tune his players’ focus. This is a relatively young group; three of the five starters (Kemba Walker, Gerald Henderson and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist) have never been in the playoffs.
Clifford’s message, frequently repeated, is stop staring at the standings because that’s devoting energy to things the players don’t control. Clifford is emphatic in saying it’s irrelevant to him who the Bobcats face in the playoffs; the issue is how well they’re playing, not who they’re playing.
True as that is for the players, it’s understandable that fans – particularly new-found or peripheral fans – are curious about the various permutations of who the Bobcats might play.
Here’s how all that looks:
• The Bobcats’ four remaining games are equally divided between lottery teams (the Celtics followed by the Philadelphia 76ers Saturday) and playoff teams (the Hawks in Atlanta Monday followed by the Bulls in Charlotte Wednesday).
A caution about those last two opponents: The Bobcats have lost 11 straight games to the Hawks (including three this season). For whatever reason, it’s a matchup problem. Also the Bobcats have lost all three games against the Bulls this season, though each loss was close.
The point here: While the Bobcats might have the inside track to the sixth seed, it’s less than a lock they can’t be passed by the Wizards.
• There are five potential Eastern Conference opponents, though one of those – the Brooklyn Nets – are a long shot. They would have to make up a three-game deficit to the Toronto Raptors to win the Atlantic Division with four games left.
• The Raptors, Chicago Bulls, Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers are the realistic options. The Raptors and Bulls are tied for the third-best record in the East. The Bulls would have to beat the Raptors outright for the third seed, since the Raptors are fast-tracked to the Atlantic Division title, and that’s an automatic tiebreaker over a non-division winner.
• The Pacers and Heat have gone back-and-forth for the top record in the East. The Bobcats can finish no worse than seventh in the East, but it’s a tossup whether Indiana or Miami will end up seventh.