When you are a good basketball team, you punish bad teams.
You do not let them stay in the game. You do not let them restore their fragile confidence. You push them down early and keep them down.
That is what the Charlotte Bobcats did Friday night in a 91-80 win against the Orlando Magic, exactly a week after the Bobcats didn’t do it to the same team.
The way Charlotte played Friday night was a blueprint for how the team could win the first playoff game of in franchise history – start every offensive possession with an emphasis on Al Jefferson, get Kemba Walker (who had a triple-double) involved in everything and play defense like you mean it.
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“When we play the right way, we can be a good team,” said Jefferson, who ended up with 29 points and 16 rebounds in what was a typical game for him these days. “We can play with any team in the league.”
A week ago, Charlotte was not a good team against Orlando, frittering away a 16-point lead and losing in overtime. This time, before a nice Friday night crowd of 17,708, Charlotte led by 17 points at halftime and, unlike a week ago, never let Orlando get all the way back.
The Bobcats beat Orlando (21-55) just like teams used to whip Charlotte. Jefferson said that while he didn’t want to disrespect the Magic, there was no way Charlotte should have lost to Orlando a week ago.
Charlotte (38-38) has reached .500 with six games left in the regular season – the first time the Bobcats have been there since they were 7-7 in late November. They will clinch a playoff spot very soon, which is not something I thought they were ready to do this season.
Jefferson did a full night’s work in the first half, with 21 points and 11 rebounds by halftime. A week ago, Nikola Vucevic had banged very effectively with Jefferson underneath. But Vucevic was a late scratch Friday and Orlando had no one else who could deal with Jefferson, who is finally receiving more national attention after playing spectacularly well for the past three months.
Sports Illustrated wrote a glowing profile of Jefferson. The Bobcats’ new “BigAlsPaint.com” website is well worth a look – it cleverly plays off Jefferson’s strength near the basket with a series of painting-themed tips. On a video clip also shown on the scoreboard Friday, Jefferson painted rookie Cody Zeller’s T-shirt – with Zeller still in it.
It’s all fun when you are winning, and the Bobcats are. If they keep doing it, they have a chance at the No. 6 seed and avoiding Indiana or Miami in the first round of the playoffs. They are 12-2 in their past 14 home games; 11-5 in their past 16 games overall.
The Magic is a shell of what it was in 2010, when it swept the Bobcats out of the playoffs in four straight games in what remains the only postseason the Bobcats have ever experienced. Jameer Nelson – who torched Raymond Felton throughout that series – is still around to run the point for Orlando. But there is no Dwight Howard. Steve Clifford – then an Orlando assistant coach – is now Charlotte’s head man.
Jefferson still wasn’t totally satisfied with Friday’s 11-point win. saying the Bobcats made a mistake with a third-quarter lull that he said offered Orlando “hope.” It didn’t last long. When I asked Clifford what the Bobcats did well Friday, he smiled and said: “We got the ball to Al – that’s always a good thing to do.”
That’s the way every Charlotte game starts now – get it to Al.
The Bobcats have claimed to have a plan in place for 10 years. For once, they really do – and it’s working.