CLEVELAND — Never in the eight previous seasons of the Charlotte Bobcats has this team had a true identity, at least not one to which it would aspire.
If the first eight games a 10th of the season is any indication, this team has established an identity: On a regular basis it guards well in the half-court and gets to the foul line. Add in a low-post presence in center Al Jefferson, and theres a foundation being built that appears sound.
Wednesdays 89-83 road victory over the Boston Celtics was a good illustration: The Bobcats shot poorly 37 percent from the field and 25 percent from 3-point range but they were excellent defensively (Boston shot 38 percent and was outrebounded 50-45). And the Bobcats took 30 trips to the foul line, making 26 free throws.
That free-throw factor has become an important edge in the Bobcats 4-4 start. In the four victories theyve averaged 34 free-throw attempts. Even in the four losses, theyve averaged 28.7. Bobcats coach Steve Clifford says the best use of any possession, by far, is getting to the foul line: Better than an open 3-pointer or a fast break.
The trips to the line should only increase as Jefferson continues to assimilate into this offense. He took six fouls shots against the Celtics, making them all, in a 22-point, 11-rebound performance.
The defensive improvement was apparent in the preseason, even though Clifford was reluctant to trust it initially. He said preseason games are a poor gauge because opposing stars arent playing their regular minutes with games on the line. But now the Bobcats have beaten the Cavaliers in Charlotte (point guard Kyrie Irving) and the Knicks in New York (Carmelo Anthony).
Clifford is fond of saying the defense is solid when we guard 5-on-5. Translation: Letting opposing scorers leak out in transition tests what is a very small margin for error for a Bobcats roster that is 29th among 30 NBA teams in scoring and 28th in field-goal percentage.
There are three elements Clifford particularly values defensively: Get back in transition, dont give up much in the post and dont foul needlessly. So far the Bobcats have generally abided by those principles.
The next thing Clifford hopes to improve is his teams 3-point defense. The Bobcats give up 36.8 percent from 3-point range (20th defensively in the league), while shooting 27.5 percent from the arc (26th offensively).
Bobcats opponents have scored nearly twice as much from 3-point range (162 points to Charlottes 84) this early season. Thats an average of 9.7 points per game the Bobcats must make up in some other area.
Clifford said he can live with a deficit in 3-point scoring, just not so big a deficit.
Notes: After an impressive preseason, Jeff Taylor struggled offensively in the first seven regular-season games, averaging 8.4 points on 35 percent from the field and 54 percent from the foul line. The Celtics game was progress: Taylor scored 12 points on 4-of-8 from the field and 4-of-4 from the foul line.
Clifford has frequently praised Anthony Tolliver of late. Tolliver started in place of power forward Josh McRoberts (personal absence) against the Celtics, over rookie Cody Zeller. Tolliver made all three of the Bobcats 3-pointers in Boston. Clifford likes Tollivers defense against different kinds of forwards.
Clifford said of Jefferson, Hes a much better defender than I realized. Jeffersons defense has frequently been criticized over his NBA career.
Bonnell: 704-358-5129; Twitter: @rick_bonnell