At first glance, Charlotte looks like a solid bet to make the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. The Bobcats are seventh in the Eastern Conference, a half-game ahead of Toronto, three games clear of ninth-place Chicago and a half-game behind Miami with 12 to play. Eight of those games are at home, where Charlotte is 25-8. And four of them are against teams in the bottom six of the NBA -- Washington, New Jersey, Minnesota and Philadelphia.
But there's no sense in trying to predict Charlotte's performance in what has been a screwy season, best exemplified by its beating the Cavs (56-15) three out of four while losing to the Nets (7-62) two out of three. With such maniacally competitive figures as new majority owner Michael Jordan, coach Larry Brown and leading scorer Stephen Jackson all on board -- not to mention All-Star Gerald Wallace and his nonstop motor -- perhaps it's not surprising that this team is simultaneously so feisty and so erratic. If the Bobcats are involved, the chances of an intense, sloppy game are very high indeed. Charlotte leads the league in turnovers per 100 possessions, but it also generates the third-most miscues via its stifling defense.
Because the Bobcats' grind-it-out style already approximates the dominant tendency of playoff hoops, they could be a dangerous foe in the postseason -- especially if they fall to the eighth seed and draw a first-round matchup with a Cavs team under extraordinary pressure to reach at least the NBA Finals. Jackson, of course, was part of a Warriors team that toppled the Mavs in 2007, the only time an eighth seed has upset a No. 1 in a seven-game series. Given the media's love of a recurring narrative and Jackson's thirst for the spotlight, we'll see a lot of "Captain Jack" if Cavs-'Cats comes to pass.
But having Jackson's ego expanded is probably not a good thing for Charlotte. While he has brought rugged, versatile defense, a much-needed ability to get his own shot and an undeniable swagger since his arrival in November, he has to stop regarding himself as the go-to guy in crunch time.
In an overtime loss at Atlanta last Friday, Jackson missed two free throws in the final minute that would have helped win the game in regulation, then stubbornly tossed up three straight bricks from three-point territory in a 57-second span in OT while the Hawks forged a 91-88 lead. Contrast that to point guard Raymond Felton's hitting two clutch shots to put the Bobcats back up by one before Joe Johnson's buzzer-beater decided the game.
The "Clutch Statistics" segment of 82games.com shows that this isn't an isolated case. In the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime of games in which neither team leads by more than five points, Jackson makes less than a third of his shots (32.8 percent). Wallace is nearly as inept (33.3 percent), while Felton is a 50 percent shooter in the clutch. For that matter, Jackson hasn't been very accurate under any circumstances lately -- he's shooting 37.9 percent in March, including 25 percent from three-point range.
Unlike his previous playoff experiences in San Antonio, Indiana and Golden State, Jackson doesn't have gifted scorers for teammates. But as a career 42 percent shooter himself, he needs to remember that his rough defense on Nowitzki was his chief claim to fame in the Warriors' victory against the Mavs. He's a mucker on a team that wins ugly.
• Anyone who has watched the Spurs recently knows they are not going to win a fifth ring for Tim Duncan's thumb this year. But as the hallmarks of the Duncan-era dynasty become increasingly threadbare, the grit and grace of the team's battle to retain its relevance in the championship chase adds new luster to the proud legacy of a franchise that won four titles from 1999 to 2007.
There is no other way to put this: Duncan is wearing out. On the tail end of a back-to-back last Wednesday, he ran into Dwight Howard and the Magic and scored just five points on 1-of-10 shooting in 25 minutes, a period in which the Spurs were a minus-21. And after playing 41 minutes in a disheartening overtime loss to Atlanta on Sunday, Duncan was taxed by 20-year-old Thunder center Serge Ibaka in the fourth quarter of another back-to-back on Monday, grabbing just one rebound in nine minutes while shooting 0-for-4 from the field and getting his final shot blocked. The Big Fundamental was so wiped out that he didn't even grouse at the officials.
But Duncan and the Spurs gutted out the win. The night before, San Antonio had lost in large part because Hawks center Al Horford amassed a double-double -- 10 points and 10 rebounds, four of them offensive boards -- in the final 15:04 of the fourth quarter and overtime. Now, after the requisite predawn arrival in Oklahoma City that comes with a back-to-back road date, the Spurs were up against a youthful Thunder team angry about its own loss to the Pacers the previous night. Despite the Spurs' wholesale double teams, Kevin Durant went off for a season-high 45 points. And when crunch time came in a nip-and-tuck fourth quarter, Duncan was jousting with a pogo stick 13 years his junior, losing the battle but winning the war.
When I caught up with the Spurs in Minnesota earlier this month, coach Gregg Popovich was even more clipped than usual in his pregame media session, no doubt sick of explaining why the team hasn't lived up to preseason expectations as the Lakers' primary challenger in the West. Twice in the 10-minute exchange he answered, "We're not as good this year as we were," once adding, with a little bite in his tone, "You guys are making this a lot more complicated then it really is." When I asked him if -- given the then-recent broken hand sustained by Tony Parker -- he would have to play Manu Ginobili between 36 and 40 minutes the rest of the season, he replied, "I would never play him that much." But Sunday night in Atlanta, Ginobili was right up against the 40-minute mark even before playing the entire five-minute overtime.
That's because Ginobili has been magnificent -- as good as his vintage performances of three and four years ago, according to Popovich. At Oklahoma City, Ginobili was responsible for all of the Spurs' five points in the game's final five minutes -- two on a steal and dish for a layup, the other three on pressure-packed free throws. And when the Thunder came down with a chance to tie it with a three-pointer, it was Ginobili's hard double team that forced Durant to pass to Thabo Sefolosha for the do-or-die shot that bounced off the rim. "One of the finest wins our team has had this season," Popovich said afterward. "I'm really proud of them."
• Using a handy tool known as StatsCube, numbers crunchers have come up with field-goal percentages from various distances. For example, through Monday, among players with at least 100 attempts from between 15 and 19 feet -- the classic "mid-range" shot -- the most accurate marksman was Milwaukee's Luke Ridnour at 56.4 percent, with Hornets point guards Chris Paul (51 percent) and Darren Collison (49.7) third and fifth, respectively. Rookie of the Year favorite Tyreke Evans, at 31.9 percent, was 112th among the 114 players listed, well below the league average of 40.4 from that distance.
But one of Evans' chief ROY rivals had an even more embarrassing stat. In the "at-the-rim" category of shots from 5 feet and in (minimum of 200 attempts), Milwaukee's Brandon Jennings was dead last at 39.3, way below the league average of 60.2. LeBron James, Orlando's Howard and Boston's Kendrick Perkins were the league's three most accurate at-the-rim shooters.
And from "short range" -- 5 to 14 feet, minimum 100 attempts -- take a bow, Beno Udrih, for hitting 54.1 percent for Sacramento, compared to the 41.2 league average. And hang your head, Courtney Lee, for your 29.1 percent mark with New Jersey.
• Speaking of clanging, how many assists has Dwyane Wade watched go bouncing off the rim from a Heat teammate's miss? People properly cite LeBron James' gaudy assist total as another reason for his closing in on a second straight MVP award, but he has three frontcourt players with more than 400 field-goal attempts shooting at least 55 percent: Anderson Varejao (56.9), Shaquille O'Neal (56.6) and J.J. Hickson (55.0). Wade's lone reliable low-post option is Jermaine O'Neal, who is shooting 52.9 percent on 699 attempts. LeBron is sixth in the league in assists, averaging 8.5 per game for a team that is third in shooting percentage. Wade ranks 10th with 6.6 assists for a team that stands 20th in shooting. We're watching two of the best passing displays in decades this season from players who aren't point guards, and only one of those players is really getting his due.