How far the Charlotte Bobcats have come was on display Saturday night, as they took one of the NBA’s best teams to the brink before succumbing, 104-100, to the San Antonio Spurs.
The Bobcats are seven games below .500, but they aren’t bad. That’s more than you could say for their past couple of incarnations.
Center Al Jefferson outplayed Tim Duncan. Charlotte – which would be the No.8 playoff seed in the East if the season ended today – led for most of this game before a sellout home crowd of 19,084.
But this game also showed how far the Bobcats (22-29) still have to go. When you compare yourself to one of the NBA’s best, the deficiencies also become apparent.
The Bobcats honored former Charlotte Hornet star Dell Curry with his own bobblehead on Saturday. Unfortunately, that bobblehead can’t suit up, and if it did would have its shot blocked by a lot of kneecaps. The Bobcats have no one like Curry who can reliably shoot them back into a game from the three-point line when they are down by a few points late, as they were Saturday.
Charlotte also just doesn’t have the bench that a team like San Antonio (37-14) has. And the Bobcats simply aren’t as smart a team as San Antonio, which took the game over with a 35-point fourth quarter as the Bobcats tried and failed to play with proper defensive discipline.
With Manu Ginobili hurt, the Spurs only had two of their “Big Three,” and only one of those had a good game.
Duncan had his 789th career double-double – think about that, more than nine full NBA seasons worth – with 16 points and 13 rebounds. But guard Tony Parker shot 3-for-13, only scored nine points and didn’t play the entire fourth quarter.
Jefferson was tremendous once again, with 26 points and nine rebounds, beating Duncan so often early in the game that the Spurs quickly switched Boris Diaw onto him.
Ultimately, the Spurs won because an Australian reserve with an unusual first name did the best Ginobili imitation you’ve ever seen. Patty Mills burned the Bobcats for a season-high 32 points. He was the best scorer on the floor, getting 18 of those points in the fourth quarter (the highest-scoring quarter any Spur has had this season).
Bobcat coach Steve Clifford afterward had a problem with the four first-half three-pointers that Mills hit, pointing to a specific mistake Charlotte made defensively on each one of them.
Said Clifford: “You’re gifting him four threes, and then he’s going. ... That’s 12 points, and they’re all mistakes.”
That’s the Spurs for you. San Antonio got to the NBA Finals in 2013 and extended the Miami Heat to seven games because not only do they have that vaunted “Big Three” – Duncan, Ginobili and Parker have been teammates since 2002-03 season, before the Bobcats were born – but they’ve got a whole lot more.
They’ve got the best head coach in the NBA in Gregg Popovich. They’ve got a roster full of “skilled, smart players” as Clifford called them. The Spurs’ players are integrated into the system so well that even when Parker and Danny Green (three points) are both shooting poorly and Tiago Splitter, Ginobili and Kawhi Leonard can’t play due to injury, they can still beat you.
Charlotte? The Bobcats are making progress. Jefferson has been superb, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist had 12 rebounds Saturday and Gerald Henderson and Kemba Walker combined for 41 points. You can see why Charlotte went 3-1 on its recent West Coast swing.
But when you see the way a team like San Antonio can handle Charlotte, even at far less than full strength, you also see how far the Bobcats still have to travel.
Fowler: email@example.com; Twitter: @scott_fowler