Playing meaningful basketball games down the stretch is already something worthy of being crossed off a wish list for a long-suffering franchise like the Charlotte Bobcats, but Steve Clifford's bunch is hungry for much more.
The franchise's second-ever postseason trip is all but certain at this point, so the focus now turns towards Charlotte's opponent once that trip starts. The options are slim with only three real scenarios being possible.
As the old adage goes, "beggars can't be choosers." Charlotte is not exactly in control of its own destiny at this point aside from going into full-blown collapse mode and missing the playoffs somehow. As a lower-seed in the top-heavy Eastern Conference, whichever teams wind up landing those spots will have some serious work ahead of them.
Charlotte would love to be able to impose its defensive presence onto whichever it get its hands on in the postseason. That is how the Bobcats have won games all season long and will represent their best chance at shocking the world come playoff time.
Each of Charlotte's likely scenarios has pros and cons, but one situation would prove to be incredibly convenient, albeit rather unlikely.
Scenario One: Charlotte Lands the No. 7 Seed, Draws the Miami Heat in Round One
It doesn't take a hardcore basketball fan to determine that this is probably not the ideal scenario for Charlotte, but unfortunately it is the most likely to occur at this point.
This is not what Charlotte wants, and the most feasible way to get out of it is for Miami to keep playing well and snag the top seed from Indiana.
On paper, nobody matches up well with Miami. They have won back-to-back NBA titles and are seeking a fourth consecutive trip to the finals. LeBron James has also never lost in the first round.
Miami is 4-0 against Charlotte this season, highlighted by LeBron's 61-point pummeling in early March. The Bobcats did hang in there for two of the matchups, losing by one point in one game and taking the Heat to overtime in another.
The recipe to beat Miami is simple, but actually executing it consistently enough to win four games against them is another thing altogether. The Heat struggle against adept big men. We've seen it the past few years when they have matched up with Roy Hibbert in the playoffs, we saw it in the 2011 Finals against Dirk, and we saw it last year with Tim Duncan. We also saw it this season with Al Jefferson.
Big Al averaged 25 points and 15 rebounds against Miami this year on 57 percent shooting. No one on their roster matches up well with his dizzying array of old school post moves. In this sense, Charlotte matches up very well with Miami because they have the exact type of player who can carve them up.
Regardless, no one wants to face the Heat simply because of who they are. Charlotte is best off just praying this matchup does not transpire because they will most likely get swept unless Jefferson goes completely insane.
Charlotte simply does not have the playoff prowess to hang with Miami just yet.
Scenario Two: Charlotte Lands the No. 7 Seed, Draws the Indiana Pacers in Round One
This is hardly a win, but Indiana is more favorable for any team than Miami because LeBron is...well, LeBron.
The Bobcats are 1-2 against Indiana this year and matches up better against the Pacers better because of their style of play. Indiana will not carve up a great defense like Miami will, nor will they get out and run on the break too much or bury opponents with a three-point barrage.
Indiana plays a slower, grind-it-out style similar to Charlotte. Indiana has also not been playing well at all of late, having lost nine of the past 15 games, during which time Charlotte pounded them by 22 points. It is no guarantee that the Pacers will be able to simply flip the switch come playoff time.
Jefferson also has his way with Indiana, averaging 23.7 points on 55 percent shooting this year.
Perhaps most importantly, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist absolutely has his way with Paul George. After shouldering much of the blame for surrendering a lot of LeBron's 61 points, MKG responded by holding Paul George to 0-for-9 shooting two days later, the worst performance of George's career. The All-Star forward shot 2-of-12 and 6-of-15 in the team's other two meetings.
When you look at Jefferson's prowess against Hibbert, MKG's dominance of Paul George and Indiana's overall lackluster play over the past few weeks—maybe throw in a little dose of Kemba Walker—and Charlotte might have what it takes to shock Indiana.
It is still unlikely, but Charlotte has proven itself much better against the Pacers than against Miami and should be rather content with this scenario.
Scenario Three: Charlotte Lands the No. 6 Seed, Draws the Toronto Raptors or Chicago Bulls in Round One
Charlotte's spirited play of late may actually pay off by vaulting over the Washington Wizards to the sixth seed.
The Bobcats trail Washington by two games in the division and conference standings after beating the Wizards Monday (March 31) for the second time in three weeks. Charlotte still has one more game against the Wiz this season and will try to earn the head-to-head tiebreaker and jump Washington in the standings.
Chicago has also played well and is now tied with Toronto for the third seed in the East. The Bulls have been on somewhat of a tear of late and are never a team you want to see in the postseason.
The Bulls have the defensive capabilities to slow down the already offensive-challenged Bobcats. Charlotte is 0-3 against Chicago this season and has not cracked 100 points in any of the matchups. Jefferson is only Bobcat to have played well offensively against the Bulls this year.
Toronto is maybe the biggest surprise in basketball this year. Charlotte is 3-0 against Toronto this season and has the talent to knock the Raptors off in the opening round.
The Raptors are solid defensively as well, but they do not have the size to slow down Jefferson which is the main game plan to beat the Bobcats. Charlotte has proven time and again that they are most vulnerable when Jefferson is not on a roll offensively. MKG and Gerald Henderson would have their hands full with DeMar DeRozan, but Toronto does not have many scorers who strike fear in an opponent outside of him.
The Bobcats have a relatively easy schedule the rest of the way and have to do whatever possible to try to nab that sixth seed. They have proven this season that of the four potential opening-round opponents profiled above, the 'Cats have by far the most success against Toronto.
The other three draws would likely spell defeat, but a matchup with Toronto could bring Charlotte its first playoff series victory in franchise history.
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