Up by 12 at the half, it looked like the Bobcats could hold on to beat the Atlanta Hawks, but that lead was erased in the third quarter, and when Shannon Brown tossed away an inbounds pass with only 31 seconds remaining, that virtually sealed the game in Atlanta's favor, 102-97.
Brown's the obvious scapegoat for, first, throwing the ball away, and then making a last ditch effort to drive to the rim while down by three only to have his layup blocked, but he'd made a clutch three and a confident bank-in earlier on successive possessions. He's not the only reason the Bobcats couldn't close it out. He had to come in to the game because Raja Bell left with an apparent groin injury, and with Sean Singletary inactive and Augustin still taking it easy coming off injury, Brown is the only one left to play as the traditional two.
Really, though, they missed Gerald Wallace in the worst way. Boris (and Emeka, on occasion) did an excellent job on Josh Smith (who still wrought havoc on defense, with 5 blocks), but Morrison got torched by Marvin Williams, Cartier Martin could barely contain him, and Boris couldn't stay in front of him when he drove. It all added up to 20 free throw attempts, and Marvin made good on 18 of them.
Now, I know you're thinking to yourself: Self, Joe Johnson was out, too, so why's Rufus so focused on Crash's absence?
Good question. It's because Gerald has been more valuable to the Bobcats than JJ's been to the Hawks. According to Basketball Prospectus's calculations, in 47 games, Johnson's been worth 5.0 wins above replacement, while in 41 games, Gerald's been worth 5.6. WARP is not the end of the discussion, but Johnson's defense simply isn't on Gerald's level; as much as Johnson creates offense, Gerald creates turnovers, and he's no slouch on offense, either.
Ultimately, everyone else played within expected ranges. Raymond was on a down cycle and had a 5-17 shooting night. Emeka put up 15 points in 40 minutes and grabbed 19 rebounds, but all his work on the glass was kind of negated by Diaw's paltry 3 boards.
Thus far, Martin has failed to impress. He's basically doing what Matt Carroll did, only with a little more defensive intensity. Carroll certainly looked the part of a sharpshooter, but when a player takes every shot from 20 feet and beyond, it's easy to forget how many shots he's missing, because we're more conditioned to a lower standard of success from deep. Martin looks like he's falling into the same trap: He wants to bomb away and be that dangerous gunner, but he's simply not successful enough to make it worthwhile, and even if he is successful, he's best off mixing in moves to the rim in order to keep defenses honest and to get some easy twos.
Here's where things get bleak.
The Bobcats are now 19-30. They need 20 more wins just to be in the conversation for a spot in the playoffs.That means they'll have to go 20-13 the rest of the way. Unfortunately, they have 19 more road games and only 14 more home games. Assume Gerald comes back immediately after the All Star break. They'll likely lose at Miami on Sunday, but we'll give them wins at home against the LA Clippers on Monday and against Washington on Wednesday. Still with me?
That would make them 21-31, needing to go 18-12 the rest of the way. Assume they win all their remaining home games, since they have Gerald back, and the starting five plus Augustin off the bench is a formidable squad. That leaves them having to get 7 road wins just to be in the playoff conversation. And who will they beat?
Count the eminently winnable road games:
We're still short. The Clips are getting better as they get guys back from injury. Golden State has Monta Ellis back and Cap'n Jax going on all cylinders. Philly is a different team without Elton Brand, and consensus is that as good as he is individually, he simply doesn't fit with what they do best, so going back to Philadelphia will, again, be a tough matchup. Every other team the Bobcats visit is a solid team, and with home court should be favored.
The reality is that we'll have to steal games left and right just to reach 39 wins. If we hit any other bumps in the road--a setback with Gerald, Raja's groin, Emeka suffering an injury--we'll absolutely be done. As is, there's only a flicker of realistic hope for the playoffs this year. Thanks, Andrew.
Before the game, I had a chance to go to a town hall style Q&A with Bob Johnson, Fred Whitfield and Rod Higgins. I furiously scribbled notes and got to ask a question. Here's what I got down:
- Johnson opened with a thank you to all season ticket holders. He made a point of mentioning that the economy is so bad, he's especially grateful that there are still fans who choose to spend money supporting the Bobcats.
- Someone asked about the medical staff. They're confident they have a top notch group in place.
- I asked Rod Higgins to talk about the plan for the next five years and if anyone is untouchable. His response was that there are only a select few truly untouchable players in the league, naming Kobe. That said, he clarified that "there are players we don't want to trade" and asserted that they're still trying to make the playoffs this year.
- They're starting an All You Can Eat promotion for Friday games.
- Yes, Gerald's bus arrived safely. Higgins was in constant contact with Gerald's doctors during the trip.
- An older gentleman asked, with voice cracking from the anger he could barely contain, why Carroll had to be traded instead of Morrison, garnering a bemused chuckle from the woman behind me, and scattered applause elsewhere. (The fascination with scrappy, gritty, totally replaceable shooters who don't play defense well continues.) Higgins tried to explain the salary cap and trade restrictions in three sentences.
- To a question about whether they'd let Raymond leave after this season, Higgins said they're always trying to make the team better, and if that means letting Raymond go, so be it. (To read between the lines, they have a contract value in mind, and if Felton gets a better offer, then happy trails.)
- Asked about May, Higgins said it's Brown's call when he'll play again. He's worked hard to come back from a difficult injury. Give him the benefit of the doubt.
- Someone asked why the two seven-footers aren't playing much (I assume that means Ajinca and Diop). Higgins totally danced around the question, saying they wanted to shift Carroll's money into size, and then throwing out a bromide about understanding a coach's mindset. (I think he didn't want to tell this guy that Diop is there to provide a limited incremental improvement on defense while Ajinca is fast becoming the worst pick of the first round, since he's actually a small forward stuck in a 7-1 frame. At his absolute ceiling, he'll be Yi Jianlian with less post presence and worse defense. More likely, he'll go back to France when his deal is up in Charlotte.)
- The organization is happy to be involved with all levels of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.
- Donna Julian is the executive in charge of hospitality at the arena, and she was singled out as the catalyst for providing a family friendly and welcoming experience for Bobcats games. (As I've said before, the Bobcats are amazing at customer service. Good customer service is not giving away free stuff all the time or caving whenever a customer demands something; it's saying hello, shaking hands, smiling, and providing clear information before being asked.)
- At the end of a comment about Sean May's future value with the team, Higgins said something to the effect of, "Lots of players don't pan out in this league. You've just got to let them play. The proof is in the pudding." To which someone in the front row remarked, "Be careful talking about pudding and Sean May," causing Bob Johnson to laugh aloud into his microphone.
Besides the Official Girlfriend of Rufus on Fire, I had another companion for the event. Michael Mandlin writes the Free Ballin' Blog, a site chronicling his non-flying journey across the country to each and every NBA city. This week, he was in Charlotte, so we met up to chat hoops and the Bobcats, specifically. He's a charming fellow, plenty of his comments are still bouncing around my head, and his work is well worth reading. Check it out.