Charlotte Bobcats coach Steve Clifford doesn’t want the easy way out of the regular season. Playing the Chicago Bulls is quite the opposite.
“If you’re not ready, they’re going to tear you apart. Rip you up on the glass,” Clifford said at the last practice of the regular season Tuesday. “That’s the kind of team we need to play.”
Call it shock therapy. Finishing the season sixth or seventh in the Eastern Conference isn’t important to Clifford relative to making sure his team is back on point. Though the Bobcats (42-39) have won six of their last seven, they’ve looked shaky ever since beating the Washington Wizards April 9.
In the last three games, they lost to a lottery team (the Celtics in Boston), let another lottery team hang around until the last minute (the Philadelphia 76ers) and fell behind by 15 points Monday to the Atlanta Hawks, who were resting three starters.
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Clifford doesn’t like what he’s seeing. He wonders if this team has strayed somewhat from what got them to the playoffs.
“If we’re going to play well in meaningful games, we have to get back to who we were,” Clifford said after Monday’s game. “If we don’t have energy, we won’t play to our strengths.”
Those strengths have been sound defense and persistent rebounding. Those are, not coincidentally, the things that make the Bulls (48-33) a power in the East.
Clifford and Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau worked together for Jeff Van Gundy with the New York Knicks and Houston Rockets. If their teams aren’t mirror images, they’re certainly reasonable facsimiles. The Bulls have won eight of their last nine and are tied with the Toronto Raptors for the third-best record in the East.
The Bobcats are 0-3 this season against Chicago.
“When you play against Chicago, you better lace your shoes up good and tight,” said Bobcats center Al Jefferson, who will be matched against Joakim Noah, a contender for Defensive Player of the Year. “They play hard every night. That’s a good test for us.”
The Bobcats will either finish seventh in the East and be matched against the Miami Heat, or finish sixth and face the Toronto Raptors. Either a Wizards victory at Boston or a Bobcats loss to the Bulls locks the Bobcats matchup against the Heat.
Clifford benched four of his starters and sixth man Cody Zeller Monday after the Hawks built an 80-65 lead to start the fourth quarter. It took 10-point quarters by reserves Luke Ridnour and Gary Neal, plus a buzzer-beater by Chris Douglas-Roberts, to complete the comeback.
While the bench’s impact was impressive, the last week has not been what Clifford was looking for approaching the playoffs. He would prefer them playing well, win or lose, than scraping by as they have.
“Any good team has got to know how it has to play to play well,” Clifford said. “We’ve embraced defense, we’ve embraced rebounding.
“This is a good group – they know (what’s off). They’re disappointed in how they’ve played.”
Clifford figures that however Wednesday turns out, the Bulls should sharpen the Bobcats’ focus.
“This is a big game for them and they’re good,” Clifford said. “That’s exactly what we need.”