Bobcats bet on defense in the playoffs

Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

The Charlotte Bobcats are finally free from their draft lottery shackles thanks to a tremendous defense under first-year head coach Steve Clifford. Their reward: LeBron James and the Miami Heat.

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The Bobcats' goal was to be more competitive after years of being the butt of everyone's jokes, but a playoff berth even in the depressing Eastern Conference is beyond their best-case scenario.

You can thank Steve Clifford and Al Jefferson for this. Clifford did not arrive with as much fanfare as many of the 13 other new head coaches, but only Phoenix's Jeff Hornacek has been his equal. Clifford's pack-the-paint defensive strategy has allowed Charlotte to remain in the top 10 on that end all season, and his team's offense has improved each month.

And then there's Jefferson. He had become a scorn of the analytics community, representing the kind of player (slow-footed, weak defensively, inefficient for a high-usage player) that smarter teams were avoiding. Thus, many scoffed when the Bobcats signed him to a three-year, $41 million contract. But the Bobcats believed he'd provide much-needed organization to their younger players, and they've been proven right. Jefferson has put together his best season and is pulling his weight defensively.

If anything, the Bobcats are even better than their record. A preseason injury to Jefferson lingered well into the season. A December injury to Michael Kidd-Gilchrist hampered early momentum; the Bobcats went 7-12 without him. A midseason trade for Gary Neal and Luke Ridnour that provided much-needed shooting probably should have happened sooner.

Thus, this Bobcats team entering the playoffs is the best Bobcats team we've seen all season. That's reason enough for the Miami Heat to take them seriously.

-Mike Prada

THIS TEAM REMINDS ME OF ...

Jacque-Louis David's painting Death of Socrates

H2_31

Socrates, accused by the Athenian government of corrupting the youth with his teachings, was forced between choosing exile or death by poison. So, he chose to sacrifice himself for the principles of his teachings for his country over preservation of the self. This mirrors the Bobcats because they're sacrificing their name at arguably the peak of their existence as they go on to claim the Hornets name for Charlotte once more, facing a much more enduring history.

As for the sheer painting itself, we have the Bobcats at center both pointing upward to say "Hey, we are on the rise" or "WE ARE NUMBER ONE WE ARE NUMBER ONE" as most everyone else sighs and sobs at his endearing hope for the future. He is clearly drinking the Kool-Aid, which the man in the burnt orange robe is handing to him.

-Ben Swanson

483103823 Brock Williams-Smith/Getty Images

X-FACTOR

The Charlotte Bobcats are pretty predictable. They'll wear you out, foul you and keep you off the offensive glass. Kemba Walker will create and Al Jefferson will dominate the left block. They won't turn the ball over, but they struggle to create open looks without killer outside shooters or secondary ballhandlers.

When Gerald Henderson gets going, however, the Bobcats are a different beast. Henderson's shooting 45 percent from the field and 38 percent from the three-point line in Charlotte's wins, 41 percent and 32 percent in losses. He's remained a role player after signing a three-year deal with the Bobcats in July, posting nearly identical numbers as last season, but that role is more important than ever. Charlotte's defense is no joke under Steve Clifford and its offense could be good enough to win a series if Henderson comes through.

-James Herbert

THE NUMBERS

OFFENSE: 101.2 (24th) DEFENSE: 101.2 (6th)
eFG TOV% OReb% FTR eFG TOV% OReb% FTR
48.1 (25th) 12.9 (1st) 21.9 (26th) .297 (10th) 49.1 (9th) 13.9 (28th) 22.4 (1st) .241 (2nd)

Charlotte is one of a handful of classic East teams that's awesome on defense and awful on offense. The Bobcats' version comes by virtue of league-best defensive rebounding, an excellent aversion to fouling and really solid shot defense. It does not include any bit of turnover creation whatsoever.

The Bobcats actually do one thing insanely well on offense: they rarely turn over the ball. That plus Charlotte's own lack of turnover creation means that there are typically an absurdly low number (below 26 on average) of total turnovers in a given Bobcats game. Charlotte shoots really poorly and doesn't get second chances. The Bobcats are about average in free throw rate.

-Tom Ziller

THE GAMEPLAN

Our resident coach's scouting report on how to stop the Bobcats.

  • Al Jefferson is a load on the block. He's become a much better passer and reads the double effectively. Send a second man on the dribble or from the blind side low.

  • They will look for corner entry passes into Jefferson. They're begging you to send someone low; they'll then flash a cutter to the high post area when you bite.

  • Basic hard-working defensive team. They keep things simple.

  • They down the side pick and roll. They're sometimes slow from the nail on the slip and dive or the short roll.

  • Have received solid offensive contributions from the "spare parts" trio: Luke Ridnour, Gary Neal and Chris Douglas-Roberts.

  • Whenever Michael Kidd-Gilchrist spaces the floor, send his man as the rotator.  Beg him to shoot from anywhere other than the paint. Beg him.

  • Josh McRoberts will look to trail for the 3.

  • Kemba Walker might be slowed down by a lingering groin injury. Make him fight over repeated screens. Look to flip screens and make him change directions.

  • Walker has improved his decision-making, but still struggles with length.  Possibly blitz him on high pick and rolls, force the ball out of his hands against bigger players.

  • Bismack Biyombo is a foul waiting to happen. Have patience inside, use up fakes and step through.

-Doug Eberhardt

THE PET PLAY

Al Jefferson is the Bobcats' half-court offense. I'd guess that 75 percent of Charlotte's sets are designed to get him the ball on one of the two blocks. It's a simple approach that the Bobcats have become increasingly good at executing.

This video showcases just one of the sets the Bobcats use to accomplish this goal. A guard will cut through off a big man's screen as if he's curling to the other side, then immediately turn to set a cross-screen to get Jefferson moving towards the ball. Meanwhile, the entry passer drifts to the wing to create the perfect passing angle. That man delivers a pinpoint pass to Jefferson at the very moment the defense is recovering from the other guard's cross-screen, giving Jefferson the half-step he needs to hold strong post position.

From there, the big fella goes to work. Very few teams have demonstrated any ability to stop him consistently.

-Mike Prada

ROOT FOR THE BOBCATS BECAUSE...

Charlotte's got it all going for it right now. Al Jefferson, Kemba Walker and Steve Clifford have combined to turn around the franchise with a strong defense and increasingly fun offense.

But that's only a piece of the puzzle that makes a team fun to follow. Chris Douglas-Roberts and Josh McRoberts are the NBA's best hair duo. And the city's mayor just resigned under charges of corruption.

To cap things off, this will be the last time you can root for the Charlotte Bobcats, who will become the Hornets this summer. Just hop on the bandwagon already.

-Ben Swanson, Rufus on Fire.

CRYSTAL BALL

Best Case: They're already in the playoffs.

Worst Case: There is no worst case.

-Paul Flannery

LEARN MORE ABOUT THEIR FIRST-ROUND OPPONENT: Miami Heat

OTHER EAST TEAMS: Indiana | Toronto | Chicago | Washington | Brooklyn | Atlanta

WEST TEAMS: San Antonio | Oklahoma City | LA Clippers | Houston | Portland | Golden State | Memphis | Dallas

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