Based on recent history, if the Charlotte Bobcats could hand-pick a first-round opponent in the upcoming playoffs, it would be the Toronto Raptors; the Bobcats have won 11 of the past 14 meetings and all three this season.
Based on that same history, the Bobcats would hope to avoid any of the other likely matchups against the Indiana Pacers, Miami Heat or Chicago Bulls; the Bobcats are a combined 1-9 against those teams this season.
The Bobcats (35-38) havent yet qualified for their second playoff appearance in franchise history, but theyre getting close. Theyre in seventh place in the Eastern Conference with the top eight teams making the postseason. The ninth-place New York Knicks are five games behind the Bobcats with nine games remaining for each team.
Basically the Bobcats are playoff-safe, but not in great shape to move up in the seedings. A surprising loss to the lottery-bound Orlando Magic on Friday it was just their third loss to a sub-.500 team since late January left them 2 1/2 games behind the sixth-place Washington Wizards.
Theres still a chance to pass the Wizards and set up that possible matchup with the No. 3 Raptors. The Bobcats have two games left against the Wizards, including Monday at Time Warner Cable Arena.
But unless the Bobcats win the head-to-head series with the Wizards (its currently tied at 1), the Wizards would likely win a tiebreaker based on their Eastern Conference record. Washington has won four more games in the East than the Bobcats.
Asmuch as fans might prefer a Bobcats-Raptors series to a first round game against the Pacers or Heat, coach Steve Clifford had a different take on all this at Thursdays practice.
At the end of the day the NBA is about one thing winning the championship. So youd have to beat every team, regardless of the order, Clifford said.
As a group you have to focus on the right things: Improvement and getting our team ready to play in the playoffs, regardless of who we play. Thats what we talk about all the time.
I just want us to play better defense again.
Cliffords words proved prophetic. After holding a 16-point first-half lead over the Magic, the Bobcats gave up 54 percent shooting in the second half. By games end the Bobcats were outrebounded 57-36. As Clifford noted, shooting guard Gerald Henderson made a key mistake not fighting over a screen that allowed Magic guard Arron Afflalo to force overtime with a 3-pointer.
It was one game, but it reinforced the defensive slippage Clifford had seen coming.
I want us to recommit to our rebounding and defense from earlier in the season, Clifford said.
Some thoughts on the possible opponents:
• As logical as it is to assume the Bobcats would fare better against the Raptors, its important to remember these teams havent played since Jan. 20. The Raptors went on a late-season roll that started when they traded away the talented Rudy Gay, who disrupted ball-movement.
• As hard as it is for the Bobcats to guard Miami star LeBron James, the Heat has its own struggle guarding Charlotte center Al Jefferson, who is shooting 57 percent in this series. Strong, bulky guys like Orlandos Nik Vucevic do best at getting Jefferson off his favored offensive spots. Miami doesnt have that kind of bruiser.
• While the Pacers still lead the East, theyre closing out the regular season spotty, going 6-4 in their past 10 games. What Clifford said about worrying about performance, rather than seeding, applies to the Pacers situation.
• Clifford and Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau worked together for Jeff Van Gundy in New York and Houston. The crossover is apparent; two defensively sound/offensively challenged teams. This series would be loaded with low-scoring games; first one to 90 goes home a winner.
Rick Bonnell: (704-358-5120; Twitter: @rick_bonnell