Opening Statements: Wizards at Bobcats, Game 74
Postseason implications abound! D.C.’s Wizards will play NC’s Bobcats tonight (and then they meet again next Wednesday). If the Wizards win, they’re guaranteed a ticket to the playoffs for the first time since 2008 (the third-longest playoff drought in the NBA). The Wizards can actually lose and get in anyway, provided the New York Knickerbockers fall to Western Conference cannon fodder (the Utah Jazz).
What to watch for? Two Dookies gone pro. Both Josh McRoberts (more on him below) and Gerald Henderson are starting and playing well. Henderson, who plays 32.5 minutes per game, is averaging 14.5 points, 4.1 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 0.7 steals, and 0.4 blocks. Against the Wizards, however, Henderson seems to find his groove thang—he’s scored 27 points in each of the last two meetings.
Al Jefferson, meanwhile, still leads all NBA players in field goal attempts in the paint (5.3 per game), and he sinks more than half of ‘em. To slow him down, the Wiz will have to keep him out of the painted area and encourage him to take jumpers … which he loves to do. Jefferson is sixth in the NBA in midrange field goal attempts per game (7.3) but shoots just 38.7 percent. (That doesn’t sound great, and it isn’t, but it’s still better than the midrange FG% that John Wall and Bradley Beal put up).
Jefferson’s backed up by former UConn standout Kemba Walker. They’re something of a dynamic big-little duo: the Bobcats are 12-4 this season when Walker and Jefferson score 20 or more points in a same game.
Enough from me though… Stopping by TAI to preview the hardwood action is Gregory Pietras (@Handles_Messiah), who covers the Charlotte Bobcats for Queen City Hoops, the ESPN TrueHoop Network blog. ¡Vamos!
Teams: Wizards at Bobcats
Time: 7:00 p.m. ET
Venue: Time Warner Cable Arena, Charlotte, NC
Television: CSN // SportSouth
Radio: WFED-AM 1500 // WFNZ 610 AM
Spread: Bobcats favored by 3 points.
Wizards tickets … anyone?
Click to get them served up for cheap via TiqIQ and TAI.
Q #1: The Bobcats have lost four of the last six games, but they’re still virtually a lock for the playoffs, per Hollinger’s Odds (99.7%). How did the team punch its playoff ticket, considering they were ranked dead last (30th) in ESPN.com’s Future Power Rankings?
@Handles_Messiah: A few reasons: First, the team has responded to Steve Clifford’s defensive schemes, and they’ve managed to turn last year’s 30th-ranked defense into a top-10 unit. The defense has dropped off a bit recently, but it’s still been consistent enough to give them an identity to build around. Second, adding Al Jefferson in the offseason patched up some big holes in the offense. They still aren’t good at scoring (24th overall this year), but it’s enough to get by. Just having Al around as a go-to scorer (and having a scorer in the post in general) makes a world of difference. The team’s also great at protecting the ball, with the best defensive rebounding rate and lowest turnover rate, and Jefferson has a hand in both those areas.
Q #2: First-year head coach Steve Clifford named Kemba Walker and Al Jefferson two of the team’s best players this March, and rightfully so. He also gave a shout-out to Josh McRoberts, saying he’s had a “terrific year,” praising his defense on the perimeter and in the pick-and-roll. Is McBob the most underrated player in the NBA?
@Handles_Messiah: I don’t know about most underrated, but he’s been a near-perfect role player for what the Bobcats need. Kemba Walker, at least so far, is not a great passer at point guard. Having McRoberts in the high post as a second distributor has really helped ball movement, and he’s having one of the best passing seasons for a big man not named LeBron or Joakim. His 3-point range is also just good enough (37%) to help make up for sub-par shooting from Walker, Gerald Henderson and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
Q #3: Talk about Steve Clifford. How has he managed to turn the franchise around (the culture is better, the team is winning)? Is he a stat head? Does the fact he never played in the NBA make him more open to new ideas and tactics?
@Handles_Messiah: Clifford isn’t necessarily an innovator, but he has deep roots in NBA coaching and an even-keeled approach that seems to be clicking with the team’s young players. That’s a welcome change after a lot of friction with their last coach. Clifford is a product of the Van Gundy coaching tree, and it’s easy to see the influence of Stan Van Gundy on his defensive philosophy in particular—the team has a heavy focus on defensive rebounding and transition defense, even at the expense of offensive boards. While he doesn’t talk much about analytics in interviews, he’s comfortable with them and has talked about how his father, a high-school coach, used them back when he was a kid. From an outsider’s perspective, he seems like a great hire and he’s the first Bobcats coach (ever) I’d really be interested in keeping around for the long term.
Q #4: Most people north of Richmond, Virginia, would say that the Wizards have the more talented roster … and yet the two teams are only separated by three wins, a paper-thin margin. Please evaluate the two squads.
@Handles_Messiah: The Wizards have a more talented roster, but consistency seems to be their big issue. Nene bouncing in and out of the lineup, swapping Okafor for Gortat, midseason trades and other factors have probably kept them from gelling quite like they should. The Bobcats basically returned their entire roster from last season but replaced Byron Mullens (a net minus on both offense and defense so far) with Jefferson. Charlotte’s personnel knows each other very well at this point, and that’s probably given them an edge in some close games.
Q #5: The Bobcats have made the postseason only once before, in 2010… Swept by the Magic in the first round. Think they can win a game (or more) this year?
@Handles_Messiah: It really depends on the matchup. If they can claw their way into the 6th seed, which is looking less and less likely, I like their chances against the Raptors. Charlotte swept the season series against Toronto, though they’ve improved a lot since the Rudy Gay trade. They could probably steal a game from the Pacers, especially if Indiana’s recent slump isn’t just March fatigue. If they draw the Heat, a sweep is probably coming.