Tonight we recap the Magic v. the Bobcats in Charlotte, paying attention only to one side of the ball, the other side, which in this game should actually be the correct side. Why, you ask? Because Henry Abbott demanded it on Truehoop today:
So, here’s my challenge, to anyone who reads this, be you a blogger, a professional writer, a grad student, a basketball player or anything else: Between now and the Finals, tell the story of an NBA playoff game without talking about scoring.
Just to see if it’s possible.
You can’t find a better opportunity to only talk about defense than a Larry Brown team playing a Stan Van Gundy team…The story of this game was the story of this series. Dwight Howard picks up silly fouls and spends most of the game on the bench, but the Bobcats can’t capitalize because the Magic defense doesn’t give an inch when the Defensive Player of the year leaves the court. It’s the sweep no one expected, but Bobcats fans can’t be too down about the outcome. They were simply over-matched.
The tone was set from the tip off. Both teams came out chippy and high strung, and both defenses immediately took over. The game went scoreless through 2:15. Ratliff started out very physical with Howard, clearly trying to bother Dwight more than to control the paint. Howard’s only breaks came when the Bobcats switched on screens, and wing players covered Howard in mismatches. The Magic’s man to man was so stifling to start with, that the only offense the Bobcats could manage was when Howard was focused on chasing offensive boards and was late getting back in transition. Midway through the first quarter Nazr Mohammed came in. Why not Chandler, the player that came back in the Okafur trade? (Interesting side note: Tyson Chandler and Tyrus Thomas are both 2nd overall picks of the Chicago Bulls who wound up in Charlotte.)
The Bobcats did not fold by any means. They played a tough man to man defense of their own, but they did not close off driving lanes on the pick and roll. The show on the screen was weak, and the big man was always trying to recover to Dwight too quickly. The Bobcats biggest problem throughout though was a general failure to match up in transition at the three point line. Just like covering the Phoenix Suns, it is imperative that you find the three point shooters immediately when you get back on D against Orlando, and the Bobcats were just too focused on cutting off drives to the interior. Stephen Jackson had constant trouble staying in front of Vince Carter off the dribble. That was partly Captain Jack’s knee trouble showing up and partly the result of the player defending Dwight refusing to show out strong on the pick and rolls, leaving Jackson trailing a lot of screen action. Felton did a great job pressuring Nelson full court. Gerald Wallace was also very active, getting deflections and a nice cross court interception.
Once again Howard got into early foul trouble with a couple of push fouls. When Howard sat, the Orlando defense changed dramatically, but it did not weaken significantly. It adapted. The Magic collapsed into the paint on drives and dared the Bobcats to beat them from the outside, and they paid special attention to Stephen Jackson, trapping him hard without fear of his teammates’ hitting jumpers.
The last play of the first quarter was a really big one that Cats’ trapping perimeter defense set up. Jameer Nelson held the ball for the last shot. Augustine pressured him hard and Gerald Wallace stepped up perfectly to take the charge. At the other end, the Magic stuck to their game plan of not pressuring perimeter shooters and gave Felton a wide open deep three as the clock expired. Charlotte ended the 1st quarter up 2 (25-23)
Between quarters I flipped over to Bernard King Night on the MSG channel. No defense to be seen in the King v. Mark Aguirre match-up.
The Bobcats began the 2nd quarter pressuring the Magic ball-handlers and scrambling to cover up as the Magic swung the ball. Wallace inexplicably doubled Howard 18 feet from the basket, and left Pietrus open at the three point line. Luckily for the Cats, just as it looked like their defensive doggedness was starting to let them down, Howard picked up foul number three contesting a drive by Augustine.
When Howard sat a few big plays went the Cats’ way. Both teams were still playing man to man but hedging and helping a lot. Reddick took his first shot to a cacophony of BOOOOS and managed an ugly airball as Larry Hughes rotated off him on a ball trap. Chapel Hill’s Coach Williams gave a nice little fist pump on the sideline on the Dukie’s miss. The Bobcat’s increased their ball pressure to a true halfcourt trap, which led to an errant Magic pass. Michael was up and clapping at that point.
About midway through the 2nd quarter, the Magic changed their defensive tact and went to a match up zone. They began collapsing on Jackson in the post, completely uninterested in guarding Cats shooters. They mostly got away with it. This was a completely different look than they gave when Howard was guarding the paint. At the other end the Bobcats moved into a screen-switching defense to try to negate the hard rolls to the basket that Gortat was making. The Bobcats would play man to man throughout, but they did move from pressing / trapping to switching to a looser collapsing style.
Bobcats up 45 – 43 at the half.
Howard had 3 fouls in 10 minutes. His bearing reminded me of Alonzo Mourning with Dennis Rodman in his head in 1997 Eastern Conference Finals.
At the start of the 3rd quarter the Bobcats were still pressuring hard, and the Magic were making quick swing passes to try to counter. In the early going you could see the defensive impact of Howard as the Cats were clearly reluctant to drive against Dwight. In the third quarter the Cats STILL weren’t pressing into Lewis at three point line, and they paid for it. Charlotte’s defense made a concerted effort to collapse on Dwight’s catches inside, but Ratliff still picked up his 4th and his 5th fouls playing behind Howard in the post.
The Magic were really cutting off the rim until Howard picked up another foul on a Felton jump in. This looked like a pretty bad call, and it was the 4th foul on Dwight. The Magic continued trapping Jackson and leaving Ty Thomas the open man, which sounded like a good idea but didn’t work so well in practice. They did make life tough for S-Jax though. His only easy basket came when the Magic overplayed him off the ball and allowed a backcut to the rim.
I don’t know how many steals Jameer Nelson had in the game, but he did a great job ruining Charlotte dribble drives and post moves. On one crucial play in the third, he broke up a Diaw spin move and caused the turnover on a Diaw offensive foul. Orlando went up five points then, but with their lockdown defense and the Cats’ general lack of firepower, it felt like a double figure lead. The Bobcats remained gritty competitors though. They continued to scrap and scramble on defense, and they ended the third quarter down just three points, 71 – 68.
Larry Brown’s basic message while talking to Cheryl Miller in the mandated between quarter interview session: “Keep them off the foul line and don’t get beat by penetration.” Even the coaches were only talking defense tonight.
The Bobcats continued to play straight up man to man, but they were slowing down, and they needed to start doubling Carter. Wallace began to go under screens. Carter drew collapsing defense. After a one man run by Half-Man, Charlotte got physical with Vince – Chandler with a hard foul, nothing over the top for the playoffs but there was contact to the head. A personal foul and a flagrant 1 were called. That seemed to be a disheartening play to an already tired team. The Cats started to look a little slow on the defensive end, not fighting over screens anymore, not crashing the boards hard (except Ty Thomas).
The face of the game changed again when Dwight returned with 8:45 left in the 4th. The Bobcats abandoned driving with Howard under the rim. Augustine almost immediately had an unforced turnover on an entry pass towards (but not to) Chandler. Chandler really started shoving Howard hard, as though he was trying to provoke or frustrate him. Making him shoot free throws probably did frustrate him.
Even exhausted, the Bobcats contested everything, but they knocked themselves out of the game when they overpursued the ball and left Pietrus open for three. At the other end Howard got away with what appeared to be a goaltend, and the outraged Bobcats failed to get back and cover the three point line. S-Jax picked up a technical foul. And that was pretty much the end.
Although they were only down 7 with 5:40 to go, the Bobcats had lost a step and could no longer stay in front of penetrating guards. They were forced to collapse into the paint and began giving up open treys. At the other end Howard turned the paint into a black hole, and the Bobcats played over 8 minutes without making a field goal. Stephen Jackson committed two bad turnovers in the last few minutes of play and wound up averaging more than 4 turnovers per game.
The game ended thusly: Bobcats took an intentional foul on Howard to get the ball. Howard hit 1 of 2. Gerald Wallace was forced off the three point line by the Magic’s pressure D and into a missed midrange pull up. The Bobcats fouled Howard again. Howard shot 1 of 2 from the line again. Charlotte had no urgency to get quick points. It was a ten point game with 1:32 left. Bobcats began fouling the Magic on the catch. Too little too late. TNT crew began talking about the Suns / Blazers game. Up eleven, Dwight Howard fouled out on a blocking foul in the paint. The Charlotte sound guy played the “Hit the road, Jack” song despite the fact that the Bobcats were about to be swept. Howard sat with 13 rebounds and 2 blocks in less than 24 minutes. Bobcats quit fouling. Magic got the sweep.I genuinely think the Bobcats played as well as they could. They really did just about match the Magic in defensive intensity and execution. They just didn’t have as much talent and shooting. My only question about the way the game went is: Should the Cats have gone to the Hack-a-Howard earlier in the 4th quarter? I hate to second guess as great a coach as Larry Brown, but I think they should have. They needed more possessions to try to come back, and that would be one way to get more possessions, more coaching opportunities for Brown to call plays, and hopefully give up very few points doing it (plus it would keep better free throw shooters off the line).
I got the feeling from watching the game end that neither team liked the way it played out. Howard and the Magic wanted to have the big guy on the court for at least one game. The Bobcats wanted to win at least one game. But all things considered, the 2nd seed crushed the 7th seed like it was supposed to, and the Bobcats fans have to be happy to have hosted their first playoff games ever. This was a gritty struggle of a playoff series, and that’s what it was supposed to be.