Say what you will about the Charlotte Bobcats and their level of improvement for this, their third season in the NBA. If nothing else at this stage, they know how to keep us guessing.
Through three 2006-07 debut games last week, the Bobcats gave us a little bit of everything. Some of it was good, some bad and some, at times, just plain ugly.
All of which begs the question – which way now, guys?
We start getting some answers on Wednesday when Charlotte goes to Boston for the first of six games in an 11-day span. Until then we’re left to wonder, will we see the Bobcats that played loose with the ball and squandered big leads in losses to Indiana and Memphis? Or the team that played much more under control and refused to buckle in a stirring Saturday home victory over LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers?
“We’re not going back to that,” Gerald Wallace said after the win. “Like I told the guys when we came into the locker room, the first two games are over with. Let’s just go play and build off this.”
Win or lose in this stretch just ahead – a stretch complicated by travel with four of the six games on the road – there is reason to believe the Bobcats will not likely revert to the turnover-plagued team that stumbled out of the gate.
It is all, it appears, about mindset.
Whatever was ailing the Bobcats early on, it had disastrous consequences. They played as if preoccupied, uncharacteristically giving away the ball at an alarming rate and creating far too many easy scoring opportunities for the Pacers and Grizzlies. They were slow to the defensive boards, giving opponents too many second-chance points.
To make matters worse, their timing was just as bad – they played well enough to build nice leads in both losses, only to cave in when it mattered most.
The malady, coaches and players said, was much more mental than physical.
“Everything was messed up in our heads,” Wallace said.
Veteran Head Coach and General Manager Bernie Bickerstaff, who prefers to let emotions subside before critiquing his players’ performance, walked rapidly off the court in Memphis, his face twisted in frustration. He let off some steam that night, then, true to his nature, had different thoughts the next morning.
“We got chewed out after that game,” Wallace said. “We came in early (for Saturday’s mid-day shootaround) and had a meeting. And (Bickerstaff) talked about how maybe we were just thinking too much.
“He wanted us to relax and go out and play and have fun. Love each other, protect each other out there on the court…
“In those first two games we got to concentrating too much on wanting to do well for the city, for the fans. And all this talk about the playoffs, we kind of put too much pressure on ourselves for us being a young basketball team. I think we were thinking too much. We basically dominated those first two games. And then when it came down to winning time there was too much on our minds instead of just playing and having fun and relaxing. And that played a major part in the losses.”
The mindset changed on Saturday as coaches and players talked and Bickerstaff called for a more relaxed approach. The difference was obvious against the Cavaliers that night.
The Bobcats didn’t suddenly turn into the Spurs, Mavericks or Heat, of course. And they fell behind at times by a dozen points.
But they didn’t tighten up. With a crowd of 19,147 watching, they fought back, claimed the lead, extended it to nine at one point, then held off the best efforts of the explosive James and the Cavaliers to win it down the stretch.
They were far from where they want to be – Cleveland still controlled the boards 46-34, and Charlotte, after hitting 17 of its first 18 free throws, managed only 6-12 accuracy at the line in the fourth quarter. But the turnover rate, at an average 20.5 in the two losses, improved to 15.
The starting guards, Raymond Felton and Brevin Knight, combined for 40 points, eight rebounds and 13 assists while turning the ball over only four times.
The bottom line offered a 92-88 victory and some welcome relief in the locker room.
“We went out and just played,” Wallace said. “We encouraged each other. There was no more, ‘You’ve got to be here when they set that screen’ or you’ve got to do this or that. We were more encouraging of our teammates and it showed on the court.
“The thing about basketball is, you have fun. It’s not a thinking game…We put the other two games behind us.”
Will they leave them in the past? It’s hardly the time for conclusions, with 79 games to play. But if the Bobcats needed any lessons in mindset, Week One had plenty.
SHORT SHOTS: Charlotte is the only team in the league holding opponents below 40 percent in field goal shooting. The Bobcats allow 38.1 percent… On the flip side is team rebounding. Charlotte’s 39.0 average is 24th among the 30 teams, and opponents are averaging nine more boards per game than the Bobcats… Fast starts by big men Emeka Okafor and Sean May have helped make the Bobcats the NBA’s best in blocked shots with 8.0 per game. Okafor ranks first in the league with 4.33 blocks, May ninth with 2.0.
Leonard Laye covered the NBA, ABA and college basketball for more than three decades for the Charlotte Observer and the old Charlotte News until his retirement from writing sports fulltime. He will write a regular column throughout the season for BobcatsBasketball.com for his second straight year.
Good read. It's amazing what one win can do to the attitudes and mindset's of just the media, let alone the players. If the Cats can keep a clear mind and not put so much pressure on themselves then they will have an outstanding year.