On a night when the Miami Heat, Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Clippers were all in action, it was the fate of another game—this one involving a pair of longtime also-rans—that proved to perhaps be the most important.
With the win, the Bobcats officially took over the Eastern Conference’s No. 6 seed, while Washington fell to No. 7.
On its face, such a trivial, potentially temporary realignment might not seem especially noteworthy. That is, of course, until you start to examine the possible playoff implications of Charlotte’s latest surprise.
Having won three of their four regular-season meetings, the Bobcats would hold fast at No. 6 even in the event of a tie with the Wizards. Which, given the two teams’ remaining dockets, is a distinct possibility.
Of Charlotte’s four remaining games, the first three are against sub-.500 teams—the Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers and Atlanta Hawks—with its regular-season finale coming against the Chicago Bulls, a team that, assuming its seeding is secure, might well take the occasion to rest its starters.
Washington, meanwhile, faces a similar slate, with games against the lowly Orlando Magic, Milwaukee Bucks and Celtics bookending a date with the Miami Heat, who, like the Bulls, may well call off the dogs.
Viewed through the prism of pure playoff seeding, the Bobcats—at this point positioned to avoid a certain first-round doom at the hands of the Heat or Indiana Pacers—appear to be in the driver’s seat.
After all, Charlotte is 3-0 against its likely first-round opponent, the Toronto Raptors, although the two teams haven’t played since January 20.
To Washington's credit, the Pacers, a potential No. 2, have looked a shattered shell of the team that raced to the NBA’s best record back in December. And while the Wizards are a mere 1-2 against Indiana, they did manage a decisive 91-78 win back on March 28.
What’s more, Washington’s defense—currently ranked No. 11 in overall efficiency—possesses precisely the kind of length and athleticism capable of giving Indy’s struggling offense endless fits.
There is, however, a slight caveat to Charlotte’s seemingly promising prospects. Should Chicago slide up to No. 3—having won six straight and with a weak slate ahead of it, an eminently possible outcome—the Bobcats would be pitted against a team that won all three regular-season meetings.
Which would still be more promising than a potential Round 1 dance with the Heat, who fell to No. 2 after their 107-102 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies and against whom the Bobcats are 0-4 thus far.
Contrastingly, the Wizards have won two of their three tilts with the Bulls, including one in Chicago, while registering an impressive 114-97 win over Miami back in January.
Following all of that?
Lest we devolve too far into strategic esoterica, it’s important to remember that most time-tested of NBA truisms: How you’re playing is far more important than whom.
Charlotte guard Gerald Henderson expressed as much during a recent interview with Fox Sports Carolina’s Nick Parker:
I think the most important goal is just to be playing our best basketball. We want to win out the rest of our games and be playing our best basketball when the regular season ends. If that means we move up to the six spot because of that, that'd be a great thing; but regardless we're still going to have to play some tough basketball in the playoffs whoever we play against. We'll just see how it plays out. But definitely moving up to the six spot would be a great thing.
And that, more than any standings number or strategic nuance, is why the Bobcats are sitting prettier than the Wizards: Charlotte has now won five in a row and is 17-8 since the All-Star Break. Washington: three losses in its last five games, 15-12 since mid-February.
That might not seem the stuff of a surefire contender. But when you’ve been where the Bobcats and Wizards have—down, out, further out and deeper down still—even the most modest amount of momentum could be enough to spark a spring rebirth.