BOSTON -- The previous years were abysmal, the opening weeks have been traumatic and this game in particular could not have been more ugly. And what difference did all that make to the Bobcats? No difference at all.
"You have to learn how to win on the road," Charlotte's new coach Steve Clifford said Wednesday after his team's latest such win, an 89-83 edging of the Celtics. The victory put the team at 2-2 on the road and 4-4 overall and on their way to reversing the trend of the previous two years, when they were a preposterous 28-120.
With one more victory at Cleveland on Friday the Bobcats will have as many road wins as they earned throughout the entire 2011-12 lockout season. Two big differences separate this team from its horrid past. One is center Al Jefferson, who in his third game back from a preseason ankle injury provided 22 points and 11 rebounds for his first-ever win against his former team, the Celtics.
The other crucial difference has been the arrival of Clifford, the 52-year old rookie head coach who had been an NBA assistant for 13 years under Jeff Van Gundy, Don Chaney, Stan Van Gundy and Mike D'Antoni. Through eight games, Clifford's debut with the Bobcats has certainly been the more eventful of the two arrivals.
Clifford was having dinner last Thursday with ABC/ESPN broadcaster Mike Breen in Charlotte when he had trouble breathing amid overwhelming chest pain. He has been told that he was fortunate to have experienced warning signs that enabled him to be stabilized and receive two stents before his heart suffered damage. His incident followed scares endured recently by two NFL coaches: John Fox of the Broncos underwent heart surgery and Gary Kubiak suffered a mini-stroke.
"Most of my issue is genetic," said Clifford, whose family has a history of heart issues. He has been put on medication and told to lose 10 pounds while improving his exercise and sleep habits. For the next week to 10 days he has been order to show up for work only when the players are in the facility. "They don't let me do much at practice," he said. "Then I go home right after."
"We had to slow him down," said Bobcats president of basketball operations Rod Higgins. "The first night he was thinking, I'll come back tomorrow. He felt like he could get medication and re-check himself in. No, it doesn't work like that. Take some time off, Patrick (Ewing, the associate head coach) and the guys will hold it down until you come back. I'm sure it was eye-opening for him and what he needs to do for himself."
Clifford's first NBA job was as an assistant to Jeff Van Gundy, where his mentor became fellow Knicks assistant Tom Thibodeau. "Tom always talked to me about your credibility is your knowledge and your preparation," said Clifford. He, like Thibodeau, learned to work long hours.
"He starts his preparation at 6 in the morning," said Higgins. "If it's a practice day, he's meeting with his staff at 8 in the morning and they'll get ready for a 10:30 practice."
The emphasis at practice has been on defense, where they rank No. 12 in defensive efficiency after ranking dead-last in the category last season.
"He's a real down-to-earth guy who doesn't tolerate much," said third-year point guard Kemba Walker. "That's what I need in a coach. He's really hard on me, he expects a lot from me. When I'm not doing things so great, he'll let me know."
Clifford is a renowned grinder who is also known to relate well with players as people. "He can be pretty hard, and that's how you have to be as a head coach," said Walker. "I think that's what we all really appreciate about him so much, because when he wants to let you know that he expects things from you, he will. That's what's been so great about him."
When Clifford was hired, his first assignment was to watch at least 50 Bobcat games from last season. Fans of the team might say that experience could not have helped Clifford's health. "Listen, if the hardest thing in your job is to go in every morning and sit and watch games all day, how hard is that?" he said. "Your job is to be the expert on your team. There's no way you're going to have a vision on how you play best if you don't know more about them than anyone else. And the only way to do it is to sit and watch. Statistics give you a general idea, but they don't tell you why."
While he was hiring his staff, he was also meeting individually with his players in Charlotte, at summer league or wherever he found them.
"Coming into it, I was confident that we'd be hard to keep out of the paint, and that we should be able to get to the free throw line," said Clifford. "And then on the flipside, the two areas that we're most concerned about are the rebounding and the range shooting that we don't have a lot of three-point shooting."
Instead of adding shooters, the Bobcats compensated by bringing in Jefferson, who should create more open shots on the perimeter as the Bobcats reinvent their offense around him in the post.
"I'm hoping it will give us a way to more consistently force more help, which will open things up for the other guys," said Clifford. "There aren't many guys who will be able to guard him one on one, so whether it's before he gets the ball or after he gets the ball, they're going to have to be shading, helping him more, which helps everyone else play well. And then the other part - the downside of it -- is we haven't played enough with him to really begin our true lines of execution. It's the hardest part of the offense to develop. It takes more coordination, more precision with your spacing."
In other words, they aren't improving quickly enough. After three straight years of losing, and only one winning season among the last nine, this is a promising problem.