The grit and courage that the Charlotte Bobcats showed in its 99-88 Game 1 loss to the two-time defending champion Heat on Sunday reminds me of the movie 300 when King Leonidas leads a handful of Spartans into battle against the Persian "god-King" Xerxes and his invading army of more than 300,000 soldiers. The Spartans fought valiantly for several days before falling victim to immeasurable odds.
Both ancient and modern writers refer to the Battle of Thermopylae as an example of the power of an out-manned patriotic army standing tall as a symbol of courage in the face of daunting adversity. Naturally, the Miami Heat is The Persian Empire in this recreation. The Bobcats led by King Kemba Walker and Al Jefferson (one of a dying breed of legit, post-skilled big men) represent the Spartans, who are not favored by talent, history or hope in the first-round of these NBA playoffs.
In fact, Miami hasn’t lost to Charlotte since James – who surely would be Xerxes – signed with the Heat in 2010. Miami has beaten Charlotte 17 consecutive times overall. But if Sunday's game was any indication, it’s obvious that the Bobcats are ready to go bare knuckles on the ball and at the very least make the Heat work. It won’t help them win the series, but it will benefit those teams facing Miami in the later rounds. Charlotte didn’t get run out of the gym or cower to the stream of Miami fans clad in traditional playoff white. Michael Jordan’s babies aren’t going to allow LeBron James and Dwayne Wade to sleepwalk through this series and hit the next round well-rested.
Game 1's hustle-hard showing obviously earned them some respect. Charlotte's rookie coach, who started at Woodland High School (ME.) in 1983 and then was an assistant coach for five college programs and four NBA squads before nabbing the least coveted of the 30 HC gigs, is starting to get his props too.
"Steve Clifford did an amazing job this year," Miami veteran Shane Battier says. "He really changed a culture. And I don't know if there are too many teams that play harder than the Bobcats. They are a handful."
LBJ probably feels the same way, even though he won't admit it. The two-time MVP had just 27 points in the Heat’s playoff opener against a team he torched for 61 points in March.
On Sunday, Charlotte was aggressive on defense and kept the game close, even leading by as many as nine points in the third-quarter until they ran out of gas and Wade turned it up in the midst of an 18-4 fourth quarter Heat run. Wade tamed the relentless cubs, scoring 23 points in 34 minutes and showing no signs of being slowed by the hamstring injury that forced the All-Star guard to miss games down the stretch in April. Wade missed 28 games total in the regular season as part of a plan to preserve his knees, legs and overall health for the playoffs.
"Physically this is where I wanted to be,” Wade said. “Felt good today. No limitations. Good first game.”
Indeed, Wade was bombing long-range too. But this was against the Bobcats, who snuck into the playoffs by winning eight of their final nine games and riding the backs of Walker (20 points), center Jefferson (18 points) and a lot of young hustle. Don’t get it twisted, there will be some real deal murder-1 series ahead for Miami, and expending energy chasing Kemba around the court like a scene in the movie 12 Years a Slave will undoubtedly have its effects on Wade and Miami’s other veterans if they are required to actually compete at a high level in this series. The Bobcats are trying to shock the world. They believe they can do it. Fate, destiny and the facts say otherwise.
The ultimate Omen was when Jefferson injured his foot in the first quarter, saying he “heard something pop.”
Yeah. The Bobcats hopes of stretching this series.
Jefferson was horsing the Heat in the pivot and creating serious matchup problems, but after injuring his foot and getting it shot with pain killers to continue playing, Jefferson was never as effective.
“I feel a lot better now,” Jefferson, who sported a protective boot, said afterward, “but when it first happened there was a lot of pain. As the game went on it eased up on me. I just gotta suck it up. I’ll be fine for the rest of the playoffs.”
As heroic tragedies go, the Bobcats looked primed to really bring it to The Heatles, but now Jefferson is already speaking about the end of the playoffs. Any real hope the Bobcats had of pulling off an incredible upset required Jefferson to be 100 percent healthy. “I don’t know if there is one team in the league that is more dependent on one guy than how we are dependent on him,” Charlotte coach Steve Clifford said in the postgame press conference.
As for any mental edge Charlotte may have had, Jefferson’s potential series-shifting foot injury just raised Miami’s confidence level and increased its killer instinct. For Charlotte this series is all about respect and growth. Laughing stock would probably be too kind when describing how this franchise has been viewed since its inception in 2004.
On February 27, 2010, it was announced that Robert Johnson had decided to sell the team to Michael Jordan, allowing Jordan to become the first former NBA player to become majority owner of a franchise. The Bobcats—led by the franchise’s first NBA All-Star Gerald Wallace—made its first playoff appearance that year, before Orlando gave them the broom. People had high hopes for the squad, but it got worse before it got better and through a series of questionable draft picks, personnel moves and abominable play, the Bobcats fell to the bottom of the NBA sewers . While Miami was winning back-to-back c'hips, Charlotte won 28 games in two dismal seasons.
The Bobcats finished the 2013-2014 regular season 43-39, the second highest number of wins in a single season in franchise history. That 61 point spanking by LBJ actually lit a fire under the Bobcats’ 27-32, underachieving asses and the team went 16-7 the rest of the way to solidify a surprising playoff berth.
Now that Charlotte has some formidable talent and the confidence to compete with the upper-tier teams in the NBA, the first step for Clifford and his young troops is to win the franchise’s first playoff game and do it against the two-time defending champs. If they can’t do it on Wednesday, Game 2 in Miami. Then they have to scrape their way to a W on Saturday in front of what’s sure to be a raucous home crowd. Defend their home turf against colossal odds just as the Spartans did, and plant a seed for future greatness.