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NBA PM: Bobcats Ready for Playoff Push

The Charlotte Bobcats have exceeded all expectations this season and are now determined to secure a playoff spot … Carmelo Anthony and James Harden named Players of the Week

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Bobcats Ready for Playoff Push

The Charlotte Bobcats weren’t supposed to be in the Eastern Conference’s playoff hunt in mid-March. After all, this team isn’t too different from the dreadful squads that had lost 120 of 148 games over the last two seasons – aside from the addition of free agent Al Jefferson and the hiring of Steve Clifford, the team’s third head coach in three years. Significant progress wasn’t expected in Charlotte. If anything, they might improve their record by a few wins, which seemed like a bad thing since it would hurt their chances of landing a potential franchise-changing prospect at the top of the 2014 NBA Draft.

However, the Bobcats have exceeded all expectations this season thanks to the tremendous play of Jefferson, the extraordinary coaching of Clifford and the impressive development of Kemba Walker. The team is currently 29-34, which puts them in the East’s seventh seed. Sure, the conference’s abysmal competition has certainly contributed to Charlotte’s turnaround, but the on-court product has really improved as well. The Bobcats have been playing particularly well as of late – they’ve won seven of their last 12 games and have quality victories over the Indiana Pacers, Memphis Grizzlies, Dallas Mavericks, Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers.

Coming down the stretch, the Bobcats are fighting for one of the final seeds in the East along with the Brooklyn Nets, Atlanta Hawks, Detroit Pistons, New York Knicks and Cleveland Cavaliers among others. If Charlotte is able to secure a playoff berth, it’ll be just the franchise’s second postseason appearance in their brief history. The other playoff trip came back in the 2009-10 season, when Larry Brown coached Gerald Wallace, Stephen Jackson, Raymond Felton and Tyson Chandler among others to a first-round sweep at the hands of the Orlando Magic.

This Bobcats team didn’t make many personnel changes in recent years, but Clifford has certainly brought upon a culture change. The players are much more prepared than in the past, and everyone on the roster has bought in and accepted their role. Concepts have been simplified and priorities have been shifted, with previously ignored things like transition defense now a main focus. Charlotte had ranked dead last in the league in nearly every defensive statistic last season. Now, the Bobcats rank seventh in points allowed per 100 possessions (101.6), seventh in opponent field goal percentage (.444) and fifth in opponent points per shot (1.17).

Clifford deserves a ton of credit for the team’s transformation and should be a legitimate candidate for the Coach of the Year award (although it will probably go to Phoenix’s Jeff Hornacek). However, the Bobcats wouldn’t be in this position without the exceptional play of Jefferson and Walker. Both men have really elevated their games this season, turning Charlotte’s offense around with their ability to create their own shots as well as thrive in the pick-and-roll.

“You have to give them credit,” Cavaliers head coach Mike Brown said of Walker and Jefferson after a recent loss to the Bobcats. “Kemba does a great job with the ball.  He doesn’t play with it.  He comes off the pick-and-roll and goes at the big guy, which kind of gets you going on your heels. The big guy has to make a decision, ‘Do I continue to retreat or do I step up?’  He made some big shots because the big guy retreated a couple of times and he made some great passes, right on target to Al Jefferson at the right time. You have to just give both of them credit.”

Jefferson is averaging 21.2 points, 10.3 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.1 blocks in 33.9 minutes. This has been one of the best seasons of Jefferson’s NBA career, as reflected by his 22.79 PER (ranked 14th in the NBA) and his 11.1 estimated wins added (ranked 16th in the NBA). He’s also shooting 50 percent from the field.

“He’s gone from a guy that was thinking score-first to now making a ton of plays,” Clifford said of Jefferson. “The first time I met with him back in the summer, I made an edit of pick-and-rolls to watch with him so that we could start to lock in on things.  The first thing he said to me was, ‘Why don’t I make more passes?’ Instantly you like him because his concern is why he’s not throwing more passes.”

Walker is averaging 17.8 points, 5.7 assists, 4.2 rebounds and 1.3 steals in 35.8 minutes. He’s shooting 40.5 percent from the field and 33.6 percent from three-point range. Walker’s 16.95 PER is above the league average, and his maturation as a facilitator, decision maker and leader has been evident. The scariest thing about Walker is that he’s just 23 years old, so his best basketball is still ahead of him.

“At times I draw a lot of attention, and whenever I draw the second defender, I know someone is open,” Walker said. “I’m just finding my teammates and those guys are making shots.  It’s about me having confidence in those guys and that’s all it is.  They’re making shots, they’re running with me and I’m trying my best to find them.”

Alongside Jefferson and Walker, Charlotte has received significant contributions from surprising role players like Gerald Henderson, Josh McRoberts, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Gary Neal, Ramon Sessions, Cody Zeller and Chris Douglas-Roberts among others. On paper, the roster doesn’t read like a playoff squad, but that’s just a testament to the job Clifford has done and the team’s impressive chemistry that has allowed the whole to be greater than the sum of its parts.

Prior to a recent game, Clifford had Bobcats owner Michael Jordan speak to the team about their playoff push. Jordan, a six-time champion and five-time MVP, motivated the group, which is now feeling very confident as their playoff battle comes down to the wire.

“I asked our owner to come speak to the guys today before the game,” Clifford said of Jordan. “He was the one that gave the pregame speech and he talked about what it takes to play in significant games.  I think with 20 games left, it’s time to start talking about the playoffs and not just qualifying for the playoffs but getting our team game and individual games ready for the playoffs.”

“[He said to] just keep going,” Walker said. “He told us he was proud of us, of how we’ve been playing on a daily basis and how hard we’ve been working all year, and he told us to keep pushing.  Don’t stop.  This is not where we want to end.  We’re not satisfied and we’ve just got to keep going.”

“The playoffs started for us about two or three weeks ago,” Jefferson said. “I remember coach said at the beginning of the season, when you’re in a situation where you’re at the point in the season where you’ve got 20 games left and you’re in that playoff picture, you’re pretty much there.  Today, with 20 games left now, we’re right there.  So now we’ve got to turn it on and keep it on from here on out.  All the way from two weeks ago to now, from here on out we have to be focused and locked in like the playoffs have started.  We’ve got to get to the point where he shouldn’t have to call timeouts to correct us on something we discussed at shoot-around.  That’s all about growing and that’s all about getting better, the things that Michael (Jordan) was saying before the game.  We’ve got to continue to grow and be professional on the next level.  We can’t be satisfied.  Where we’re at right now, it’s a long way from where we were two years ago, and we want to continue to get better.”

This season has been a tremendous step in the right direction for the Bobcats, and they’ve timed their return to relevancy perfectly as it will coincide with their 2014-15 transformation back to the Charlotte Hornets. It would’ve sounded crazy several months ago, back when the East was thought to be more competitive, but now it’s seeming more and more likely that Charlotte will make the playoffs and officially end their multi-year run of despair.

Anthony, Harden Named Players of the Week

The New York Knicks’ Carmelo Anthony and the Houston Rockets’ James Harden today were named NBA Eastern and Western Conference Players of the Week, respectively, for games played Monday, March 3, through Sunday, March 9.

Anthony led the Knicks to a 3-1 week behind averages of 29.0 points (third in the conference), 5.3 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 2.75 steals (fifth in the conference). Anthony also averaged the fourth-most minutes in the East, at 38.7 mpg. He connected on three-or-more three-point field goals in all four contests, and tallied three steals in three-of-four games. Anthony tallied 33 points and added five rebounds, five assists and three steals during the Knicks’ 118-106 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves on March 5.

Harden led the Rockets to a 4-0 week, which included wins over the Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers and Portland Trail Blazers. He averaged 30.3 points (second in the league), 6.8 assists (seventh in the conference) and 2.50 steals (tied for third in the conference). Harden, who collects his second consecutive Western Conference Player of the Week honor, capped his week with a 41-point, 10-rebound effort in which he also added six assists and six steals, as Houston topped Portland 118-113 in overtime on March 9.

Other nominees for the Eastern and Western Conference Players of the Week were Brooklyn’s Joe Johnson, Charlotte’s Al Jefferson, Denver’s Ty Lawson, Golden State’s David Lee, Los Angeles Clippers’ Matt Barnes, Los Angeles Lakers’ Jodie Meeks, Miami’s LeBron James, New Orleans’ Anthony Davis, Phoenix’s Gerald Green, Toronto’s Kyle Lowry and Washington’s Trevor Ariza.

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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