They’re still out there, fans real and fake who insist the Charlotte Bobcats should have tanked the season. Had the Bobcats not signed Al Jefferson, they would not have made the playoffs. Had they not made the playoffs, they would have won a pick in the talent-rich 2014 NBA draft lottery.
Because the Bobcats signed Jefferson, however, they earned a first-round playoff series against two-time defending champion Miami. Close your eyes. If you’re 14 or older, can you imagine the Bobcats winning four games?
So, what did the Bobcats gain by not tanking?
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We walk out of Time Warner Cable Arena smiling. We no longer have to turn on our TV to see a good NBA team. When we’re on the road, we pull out our phones to find a Charlotte score. We stop talking about Adam Morrison.
We watch a tough, entertaining and flawed group of players win eight of their final nine regular-season games and finish one game out of sixth in the Eastern Conference. The Bobcats could use a shooting guard who could shoot and a small forward who could score.
But don’t you like what they have? Don’t you admire the poise and tenacity with which the starters and reserves play? Don’t you like the way they like each other?
Do the Charlotte Bobcats scare you, Miami guard Dwayne Wade?
“Yeah,” Wade says Saturday after Miami’s practice. “They’re a good team. We respect what they’ve put together as a group, respect them for having one of the best records in the NBA the second half of the season. We know. We play them. And even though we beat them 16 times in a row, that means nothing. We’ve got to beat them four times in the playoffs.”
On Thursday first-year head coach Steve Clifford is named the NBA’s Coach of the Month. I congratulate him and he says, “I just want to be coach of Sunday.” He means Sunday, in American Airlines Arena, against the Heat.
“Steve Clifford did an amazing job this year,” Miami’s Shane Battier says. “He really changed a culture. And I don’t know if there are too many teams that play harder than the Bobcats. They’re a handful.”
Battier, a former Duke star, sees me looking at him and adds: “I’m not just blowing smoke. They’re a handful.”
The Bobcats would have a better chance to advance if they were matched against first-seeded Indiana, third-seeded Toronto or fourth-seeded Chicago. Miami is a handful.
Miami also is an opportunity. While the Bobcats were winning seven games two seasons ago and 21 games last season, the Heat were winning championships. If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.
Walk along Biscayne Bay Saturday morning and you see people pose for pictures in front of American Airlines Arena. They already have on their Saturday night clothes. Or maybe they’re still wearing their Friday night clothes. As flashy as the subjects are, the gym, all white paint and windows, is flashier. The people, mainly women, pose as if they’re in front of a shrine.
Walk inside to the practice court and there’s Wade at a side basket, Greg Oden shooting little hooks at the basket next to him, and at the far end of the court, LeBron James and Chris Bosh. A ball rolls toward LeBron and he kicks it England Premier League-like on a hard low line to assistant coach Bob McAdoo.
As long as I’ve written about sports, I still can’t help but look. Little known fact: LeBron is 9-feet tall and weighs 300 pounds. He’s bigger than he’s supposed to be, anyway.
The Heat didn’t have the best record in the NBA, but they lead the league in glamour. They are to their sport what Tiger Woods is to his. They have the most fans and the most detractors.
Sunday’s game is on national TV, on ABC. Fans across the country, and the world, will watch. They might not know much about the Bobcats. Perhaps they will.
The game is the biggest Charlotte has ever played.
You want to wait for the NBA lottery, enjoy the ping-pong balls.
For me, it’s not about what should happen. It’s about what could.
I’m headed to the arena. Maybe see you there.