The Charlotte Bobcats have arrived. They are relevant both in the NBA and in Charlotte, North Carolina. They are finally, dare I say it, Players.
With a gutty, catlike 83-78 win over the visiting Miami Heat tonight, the Bobcats are seriously in the Playoff race for first time in the franchise's nearly six year history.
With 20 games remaining in the regular season, Charlotte's 31-31 record is good enough for 7th place in the NBA's Eastern Conference, meaning that if postseason play started tomorrow, Larry Brown's team would be booking a flight to Orlando and the Bobcats would be Playoff participants for the first time ever.
More than 18,000 fans poured into Time Warner Cable Arena tonight for the third straight game, but this time they didn't come to see Kobe Bryant and the Lakers or hometown hero and current Golden State Warrior Stephen Curry, as they did on consecutive Friday and Saturday nights last weekend.
Okay, so perhaps a few tickets were sold because Michael "Heir" Jordan goes to the games now and has become a familiar face at the far end of the Bobcats bench in recent weeks since becoming the team's presumptive majority owner, but still, tonight was different.
Tonight was a Tuesday night in Charlotte, a night in which the Bobcats typically play host to much smaller crowds. Tonight, fans showed up en masse to support their Charlotte Bobcats.
Charlotte trailed most of the game after the Heat got off to a quick start and held a 30-20 lead after the first quarter, but the Bobcats out hustled, out scrapped and out rebounded the Heat to win each of the last three periods.
In fact, the NBA's second best scoring defense held Miami to under 20 points in each remaining period, including a game low 12 points in the decisive fourth quarter, and a total of just 30 second half points.
The Bobcats' Stephen Jackson and Gerald Wallace fought especially hard defensively to contain the Heat's Dwayne Wade in the second half and Charlotte finally took and protected its first lead since early in the first quarter on a Raymond Felton three-pointer late in the final period.
Though Felton later missed the first of two free throw attempts that could have secured victory in the game's waning moments, he was the Bobcats' offensive star tonight with 15 points and 11 assists.
Fortunately, teammate Boris Diaw bailed out his point guard's charity stripe gaff with a pair of made free throws just seconds later to give Charlotte its victorious 5-point margin.
Perhaps more importantly, though, the Charlotte Bobcats reminded players, fans and teams around the nation and the Tarheel state that this is basketball country, even at the professional level.
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