The NBA playoffs technically start for the Charlotte Bobcats in two weeks. But tri-captain Gerald Henderson’s message, following Saturday’s post-season clinching 96-94 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers, was a good kind of greedy.
“Wednesday we’re playing (sixth-place) Washington. We’re going after them,” said Henderson, who made two huge jump shots in Saturday’s overtime victory. “That’s a playoff game.”
The Bobcats (39-38) are in the playoffs for just the second time in franchise history. They did it the hard way, trailing the Cavs for much of the second half and portions of overtime.
Cleveland point guard Kyrie Irving was spectacular with a career-high 44 points, but even he missed a huge 3-pointer in overtime. Other than Irving, this was an ugly game for both sides, with neither team reaching 40 percent from the field.
Center Al Jefferson found that appropriate on the night the post-season was clinched.
“Our legs weren’t under us and our shots weren’t falling. But we ground it out,” said Jefferson, who finished with 24 points and 15 rebounds.
Jefferson was essential to the Bobcats’ turnaround from two seasons that added up to 21-120. He signed as a free agent in July, providing a go-to scoring option this franchise had never really had before.
Did he see playoffs off in the horizon when the team assembled for voluntary workouts in September?
“In September we didn’t have to be there, and everybody was,” Jefferson recalled. “The first day of training camp, I said, ‘If we commit ourselves to the things we need to do, we have a chance.”
First-year head coach Steve Clifford specifically avoided setting any firm goals, as far as victories, because he wasn’t sure what he had in camp. By the end of the preseason it became apparent this team would guard well, rebound better than Bobcats history suggests, and minimize turnovers and fouls.
That’s been the formula all season, and Clifford’s intense pride in the people in that locker room came through post-game.
“That’s a really good locker room – a bunch of guys who are deserving,” said Clifford, a serious candidate for NBA Coach of the Year. “One of our particular strengths all year has been the character and competitiveness of that group. The team was put together with that as the focus.”
While everyone was happy Saturday, this moment seemed particularly special to Henderson, point guard Kemba Walker (20 points and seven assists) and backup center Bismack Biyombo – the remaining three who suffered through 7-59 and then 21-61.
Henderson was technically on the playoff team in the spring of 2010, but never played in those games. He noted he’s playing meaningful basketball for the first time since his days at Duke.
Walker, who went from Connecticut’s national championship to the mess that was 7-59, put it this way: “We’ve been the worst two teams in the NBA. That to now? Night and Day!”