Scott Fowler

Once a playoff afterthought in NBA, Bobcats thinking for best scenario

Traditionally, this is the time of year when the Charlotte Bobcats are an afterthought.

In mid-April, local sports fans usually talk about the Carolina Panthers’ upcoming draft, or who’s going to play in the Wells Fargo golf tournament, or Charlotte Motor Speedway’s two big NASCAR races in May, or really just about anything other than the woeful Bobcats.

But not this year.

The Bobcats, more “whoa!” than woeful these days, have won seven of their past eight games and already have qualified for the playoffs. Their regular-season home finale vs. Chicago at 7 p.m. Wednesday is relevant to both teams’ playoff seeding.

Charlotte (42-39) has clinched only its second winning season in its 10-year history and starting this weekend will try to win its first playoff game. If the Bobcats end up playing the Miami Heat in the playoffs, as seems likely, they are about to get more exposure in a week than they have in a year.

The Bobcats’ list of possible playoff opponents has been pared to two. I give them an 80 percent chance of facing the Heat, the NBA’s two-time reigning champ, in the first round. Miami is locked into the No. 2 seed and will play Charlotte (currently No. 7) unless two things happen Wednesday night:

1) Charlotte beats the Bulls – and the Bobcats are 0-3 against Chicago this season.

2) Washington loses to Boston – and the Wizards are a better team with more at stake in that one. That game will start at 8 p.m., an hour later than the Bobcats-Bulls.

If Charlotte wins and Washington loses, the Bobcats would play Toronto in the first round in a No. 6 vs. No. 3 matchup (I give that a 20 percent chance of happening).

Toronto would be a far more favorable matchup for Charlotte – albeit not as sexy of a first-round foe. The Bobcats went 3-0 against the Raptors this season and are 11-3 in their past 14 meetings.

Miami is 4-0 against Charlotte this season, although one game was a one-point Charlotte loss and another went into overtime. In another, LeBron James scored 61 points. Since LeBron joined the Heat in the summer of 2010, in fact, the Bobcats haven’t beaten Miami.

In any case, it’s all fun to speculate about. The Bobcats have been so bad for so long – they were 28-120 the past two seasons, the worst combined record in the NBA – that to talk about them in playoff terms almost boggles the mind.

For Wednesday’s game to matter, Charlotte had to win on the road Monday and break an 11-game losing streak against Atlanta. Behind the unlikely trio of Luke Ridnour, Gary Neal and Chris Douglas-Roberts, the Bobcats outscored the Hawks 30-13 in the fourth quarter and won on CDR’s buzzer-beating 6-foot floater.

That game was interesting on a couple of levels. Kemba Walker came back from the sore groin that had kept him out of the previous two games and seemed to be moving well (although he shot 1-for-9 and only played 25 minutes). And rookie head coach Steve Clifford had the confidence to do something dramatic, going with his second team for almost the entire fourth quarter.

It worked. A lot of things the Bobcats have done have worked this season. They found a star in big man Al Jefferson. They found a coach in Clifford. They found a point guard who keeps improving in Walker.

And they found out how to become more than an afterthought in April.