Charlotte Hornets

Charlotte Bobcats rally in finale; NBA playoffs, Miami Heat await

This might not be how Charlotte Bobcats center Al Jefferson planned it, but playing the Miami Heat suits him just fine.

“It’s gonna be a dog fight playing against the defending champions,” Jefferson said after Wednesday’s 91-86 overtime victory against the Chicago Bulls. “We’ve been underdogs ever since I’ve been here and it’s worked so far.”

This unpredictable season took one more odd turn when the Bobcats beat the Bulls for the first time in four tries this season, only to see the Washington Wizards wipe out the Boston Celtics 118-102. Washington’s victory kept the Bobcats from ascending to sixth in the East and playing the Toronto Raptors.

Game 1 of the Bobcats-Heat series will be Sunday at 3:30 p.m. at American Airlines Arena. The game will be nationally televised on ABC (WSOC channel 9 in Charlotte). This is the Bobcats’ first ABC appearance.

The Bobcats (43-39) have the considerable challenge of facing a team they have not beaten in the past 16 attempts. The Bobcats are 0-for-Heat since LeBron James and Chris Bosh signed there in the summer of 2010.

However, the games were closer this season. The Bobcats held a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter in Miami in early December, only to see Bosh hit three unexpected 3-pointers to salvage a one-point victory. Later in the season the Bobcats took the Heat to overtime.

Jefferson can’t see how this best-of-7 matchup can be a negative for a team with a minimum of playoff experience. Three of the starters – Kemba Walker, Gerald Henderson and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist – have never played in the postseason.

“We were happy just to make the playoffs. Once you get in, anything can happen,” said Jefferson, who suffered a bruised knee in the second half, but returned to the game.

“Why not go against the best? Regardless, we’ll learn something.”

Bobcats coach Steve Clifford said before the game he was glad his team closed out the season against the rugged, playoff-tested Bulls. They’d played lethargically the past three games (going 2-1) and Clifford thought some shock therapy was in order, even if that meant one less victory this season.

Clifford got what he wanted.

“We got back to playing the way we’re capable of,” Clifford said. “I felt better than I did after any of the last three games.”

Clifford worried that after the victory in Washington April 9, the team “exhaled,” as in lost its edge. He was after them to play tougher defense and refocus on rebounding. Wednesday they held the Bulls to 40 percent shooting and 2-of-10 in overtime. Chicago went scoreless for about six minutes between the end of the fourth quarter and the beginning of overtime.

The Bobcats outrebounded the Bulls 53-44.

“There was no better team for us to play,” Clifford said of playoff preparation. “If you’re not prepared physically and mentally, they will wear you out.”

Related stories from Charlotte Observer