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NBA playoffs: Charlotte Bobcats ready to take stage vs. Miami Heat

As fans walked out of Time Warner Cable Arena Wednesday, Big Pat, the team’s excellent public address announcer, said in his deep and excellent public address announcer’s voice: “Playoff tickets are available now.”

Big Pat could have said the words after sucking on a helium balloon or in a flat Midwestern voice such as mine. The message would resonate still.

That they made the playoffs was official. It’s more official now. The Bobcats have an opponent and a date. They’ll play the Miami Heat, two-time defending champions, Sunday afternoon in Miami.

Yes, Miami is outstanding. But Wednesday was a night not to worry about what could happen. It was a night to celebrate what did.

If you’ve followed the team since its inception, you didn’t see this coming. The Bobcats won 7 games two seasons ago, and they weren’t even interesting losers. They didn’t have characters. They just lost.

Last season they won 21 games. They weren’t terrible. They merely were not good.

Then they hired Steve Clifford, the first Bobcats head coach in recent memory who should be confident enough to buy and not rent.

They signed their first big-time free agent, Big Al Jefferson, who is even better than he was supposed to be. They filled the space around the starters with essential players such as Chris Douglas-Roberts and Gary Neal.

Point guard Kemba Walker, who always had the potential to become a star, became a star. They drafted rookie Cody Zeller. A former journeyman, Josh McRoberts, continued to thrive.

They won 43 games. They more than doubled last season’s victory total, a staggering stat.

On Wednesday, in their regular season finale, they beat Chicago in overtime 91-86.

The Bulls are an intense team, a thick and athletic team accustomed to knocking people around. The Bobcats grabbed 53 rebounds to Chicago’s 44, 12 offensive rebounds to Chicago’s 6.

Charlotte’s starting guards, Walker and Gerald Henderson, grabbed 13 rebounds. Chicago’s starting guards grabbed five.

As the game wound down McRoberts imposed himself on the Chicago big men, hustling and jumping and keeping the ball alive. Walker was phenomenal with 22 points and 8 assists. Every time a play had to be made, the ball was in his hands, and this is good.

Every team needs a player who says, essentially, “It’s on me.” Walker does.

Wednesday’s game felt different than every other home game I’ve attended this season. Fans showed up early. Not so early as to be in their seats when the game began, but that’s their business. Two hours before tipoff fans walked down College Street and Trade Street and Tryon Street in Bobcat colors.

Charlotte shot 40% Wednesday. Get used to that. In the playoffs, baskets become more difficult to come by, fouls harder, fans louder.

The Charlotte Bobcats went to the playoffs once. They were guests. Orlando swept them. Their stay was so brief, and so devoid of drama, that when their walk – it wasn’t a playoff run – ended it was as if they were never there.

The difference between the playoffs and the regular season?

“Intensity,” says Dell Curry, a star of the first playoff series the Charlotte Hornets ever played, and won, against the Boston Celtics. “Fans know it’s lose and go home, and so do players. Every possession counts.”

Because Miami is glamorous, the Bobcats will get much more attention than they would if they played Toronto.

Of course they’d rather play Toronto. Instead, they get LeBron and fellows, a tested and enormously talented team.

But wouldn’t you have taken this when the season began? The NBA playoffs are one of the great spectacles in sport and Charlotte is in it.

You think Big Al is going to shrink because he’s going against the Heat? You think Kemba is suddenly going to become less fearless?

The Bobcats are good team and they’re tough and man, did they prove it in front of their loud fans Wednesday.

The team is ready. I suspect our town is, too.

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