Charlotte Bobcats coach Steve Clifford believes he has a playoff team, and he plans to function like a playoff coach. That means no more choices weighted toward “player development” or massaging egos.
That was apparent in his rotation decisions in the second half of Monday’s home victory against the Denver Nuggets. Backup point guard Luke Ridnour never played. Backup center Bismack Biyombo played just over a minute. Rookie Cody Zeller played 11/2 minutes, but Clifford said that was more about the Nuggets going small late than anything Zeller did wrong.
It appeared a telling moment early in the fourth quarter when Biyombo committed an offensive foul with the Bobcats leading by 11. Clifford immediately subbed in starter Al Jefferson, and Biyombo never returned to the game.
Clifford made it clear after the game that sort of coaching would be the norm the rest of the season.
“Eighteen games left – this isn’t about playing for development or egos. This is about the team,” Clifford said. “Guys off the bench can’t make mistakes. Regardless of how many minutes you get, you’ve got to play well when you do.”
For the first time since the 2009-10 season the Bobcats are playing for tangible stakes in March. You can say that’s a reflection of the mediocrity in the Eastern Conference, but the Bobcats are protecting a spot in the postseason and Clifford wants to see how players react.
Clifford talked all the way back to training camp about how the term “player development” gets misconstrued: It’s not just about refining individual skills; it’s about testing how players contribute to team success.
“Even these guys from time to time need a reminder of the importance of making progress,” Clifford said at practice Tuesday. “It’s not just about winning enough games to make the playoffs. We need to be better.
“It’s got to be every possession, every trip. It’s about (making) progress versus just trying to win games.”
Clifford seemed to make a statement Monday by playing five players 31 minutes or more and no one else more than 19. He knows he can’t do that every night, particularly during sets of back-to-back games. But mistakes will be a bigger factor in playing time.
Shooting guard Gary Neal, who played in the NBA Finals with the San Antonio Spurs, understands.
“Maybe in Game 52 of the regular season (a mistake) is not that big,” Neal said. “In Game 7 of the playoffs, it’s so big.”
Jefferson, who signed as a free agent over the summer intending to play for a winner, pinpointed when the tone changed. It was the last game before the All-Star break, after the Brooklyn Nets drilled the Bobcats by 16.
In his postgame remarks to the team, Clifford laid out his intentions.
“He made that very clear,” Jefferson said. “He wasn’t coaching no more to keep guys in rhythm. He was going to play the guys who deserve it.
“Guys who don’t get it are going to sit down. One thing that’s been very clear about coach: He means what he says, and he says what he means.”
Bonnell: 704-358-5129; Twitter: @rick_bonnell