Are Charlotte Bobcats Poised to Play Major Playoff Spoiler?

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Are Charlotte Bobcats Poised to Play Major Playoff Spoiler?
Ron Hoskins/Getty Images

With a throwback offensive force and a defensive-minded head coach, the Charlotte Bobcats have spurred a reversal of fortune that's often unseen outside of Hollywood scripts.

The way they can muddle up the Eastern Conference playoff proceedings might be even more dramatic.

The turnaround sparked by first-year coach Steve Clifford has been nothing short of miraculous.

Charlotte holds the No. 6 spot in defensive efficiency (101.4 points allowed per 100 possessions) after finishing dead last in the category during each of the last two seasons. The Bobcats lead the league in defensive rebounding percentage (77.3) after finishing 29th (71.1) in 2012-13.

It's something that can (and should) be celebrated, but it's something of a backstory at this point—Charlotte's present is worlds removed from its putrid past.

"Words can't describe it," point guard Kemba Walker said, per the Associated Press. "...We were on the worst team my first two years, so to go from there to here, it's like night and day."

USA TODAY Sports

Turning around the program—the Bobcats have already won 11 more games (39) than they had the past two seasons combined (28)—was just the beginning.

Carolina has always been a hoops-crazed state, but rarely has the excitement crept up to the professional level. Now that it's arrived, the Bobcats have no intention of letting it slip from their grasp.

"We don't want to get to the playoffs and get swept," center Al Jefferson said, via Steve Reed of the Associated Press. "We want to make some noise in the playoffs."

And they now have the tools to do just that.

Charlotte's rise to relevance started at the defensive end, where Clifford put a simplistic spin on a problem that seemed at best complex or at worst perhaps irreparable.

"We're just playing base defense," Clifford told CBS Sports' Matt Moore. "We're not doing a lot."

Schematically, the Bobcats aren't doing a lot. They pack the paint, crash the defensive glass, limit transition opportunities and avoid giving free passes to the charity stripe.

Everything is built around preventing easy buckets. Again, not exactly earth-shattering stuff.

Statistically, though, this team is doing everything its coach requested and then some. The sieve-to-stone-wall transition Clifford envisioned has transpired in less than a full season.

Bobcats Getting Defensive Under Coach Clifford
Category Statistic NBA Rank
PPG Allowed 97.2 T-Fourth
FG% Against 44.2 T-Sixth
FTA Rate Against 0.242 Second
Fast-break PPG Allowed 10.1 First
Opponent PPG off TO 13.9 First
Opponent PITP 38.6 T-Third

NBA.com, TeamRankings.com

What does this have to do with Charlotte's upset potential? Well, success at that end of the floor tends to carry over to the NBA's second season.

"Charlotte's defense is suited to the playoffs," NBA.com's Steve Aschburner wrote.

In the offensively challenged Eastern Conference, points already come at a premium. Against a defense as stout as the Bobcats', they'll come even fewer and further between.

Playoff pairings aren't yet set in stone, but we're late enough into the season that potential matchups have emerged. The Bobcats will almost assuredly meet one of the following four teams in the opening round: the Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers, Toronto Raptors and Chicago Bulls.

Of those four clubs, only Miami (first) and Toronto (10th) have top-half offensive efficiency ratings. Both the Pacers (tied for 22nd) and Bulls (27th) hold bottom-third marks.

For the Bobcats—or "enter Eastern Conference team here"—the Heat would be a nightmare opponent. Charlotte has yet to beat Miami in the Big Three era, although one of this season's meetings was decided by a single point and another went into overtime.

If that's the matchup the Bobcats draw, then this wild ride will be over as quickly as it started.

Chuck Burton

Should any of the other three teams show up in the first round, though, things could be drastically different.

Clifford and Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau served together under Jeff Van Gundy with both the New York Knicks and Houston Rockets. The coaches—and their teams—are nearly mirror images of one another.

The Bulls have taken the first three games of this season series (they'll meet again in Charlotte on April 16), but none has been decided by more than six points and only once did either team crack the 90-point mark.

The Bobcats would have the best scorer in the series (Jefferson, 21.7 points per game), but he plays the same position as Chicago's top defender (Joakim Noah, a Defensive Player of the Year candidate). A seven-game slugfest wouldn't be out of the question, although a streaky scorer like Walker (17.8 points per game) or Chicago's D.J. Augustin (14.6) could decide the series if they catch fire.

Kamil Krzaczynski

A Raptors-Bobcats clash has the potential to be a sneaky-good playoff battle. While Charlotte swept the season series 3-0, the last matchup came on Jan. 20. The Raptors, 20-20 after that game, have gone 25-12 since.

You'd be hard-pressed to find another point-guard tussle with more toughness than Walker going head-to-head with Raptors floor general Kyle Lowry. With Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Gerald Henderson on one side and Terrence Ross and DeMar DeRozan on the other, the wings would be overloaded with athleticism and highlight potential.

But Toronto's sophomore center Jonas Valanciunas would have to grow up quickly to contain Jefferson. Big Al ripped the Raptors for an average of 23 points, 15 boards and 4.5 assists in the two games he played against them—and like Toronto, he's only gotten better with time (19.9 points through the end of January, 24.2 in his 29 games since).

Stopping either the Bulls or the Raptors might open a few eyes, but the Bobcats would spoil the playoff picture if they knocked off the Pacers.

Indiana took the first two games of this season series, but plenty has changed since then.

The Pacers have stumbled into a troubling fall from grace. With the conference's top seed still within reach, Indiana coach Frank Vogel has shifted his focus to righting whatever wrongs happened on his watch.

Apparently, by any means necessary:

After opening the season series with those two losses, the Bobcats got the last laugh in a 109-87 rout of the Pacers on Mar. 5.

Indiana is splintering. Its once-historic defense has become almost pedestrian. Offensive struggles that were swept under the rug during the team's torrid start have reared their heads at the most inopportune time.

The Bobcats find themselves at the other end of the spectrum. This unexpected playoff push hasn't rattled them, but actually seemed to have emboldened them instead. They're discovering just how good they can be and pushing their ceiling at every chance.

Pacers, Bobcats Heading in Opposite Directions
Team, Period Off Rtg Def Rtg Net Rtg W-L
Pacers Before Mar. 1 102.5 94.2 Plus-8.3 44-13
Pacers Since Mar. 1 97.5 102.5 Minus-5.0 9-12
Bobcats Before Mar. 1 99.0 100.7 Minus-1.7 27-31
Bobcats Since Mar. 1 107.9 103.4 Plus-4.5 12-7

NBA.com

"The Pacers aren’t the same intimidating team that won 16 of its first 17 this season," Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer noted. "After the last meeting with Indiana, the Bobcats should be far more confident in this matchup."

It feels like this entire season has been a confidence-building exercise. The Bobcats might have surprised us with their success, but the shock value of notching something in the win column left this locker room a long time ago.

They're just eager to see what's next.

"We can be even better than what we are right now if we dedicate ourselves," Jefferson said, via Reed.

Which potential first-round opponent would the Bobcats have the best chance to upset?

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That dedication could take them to sights previously unseen by this franchise. They've already clinched just the second postseason berth of their 10-year existence and have no intention of stopping there.

The Bobcats will be a tough draw for whichever team opposes them.

Defensively, they make life difficult on the opposition. Offensively, they attack in a way long thought to have been abandoned in this league. Jefferson's vintage collection of back-to-the-basket moves and ball fakes is tough to stop on its own, but it's incredibly problematic to contend with when no other offense is built in such a way.

Also, don't underestimate the importance of playing pressure-free postseason basketball. No one expected this team to make it this far; everything from this point forward is found money.

And these Bobcats are looking awfully greedy at the moment. Greedy enough to score a colossal postseason upset—maybe even a few.

 

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.

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