Before the game, the Charlotte Bobcats were in uniform. Big Al Jefferson was not. He stood in front of the locker room, in jeans and white sneakers.
Without Big Al, what happened Monday was inevitable. Charlotte played well for a while and then Miami embarked on its inevitable surge. Down by two at the half, the Heat outscored Charlotte 32-17 in the third quarter and won 109-98.
Thus did Charlotte’s nine-day playoff run end.
Did the Bobcats get anything out of it? If you’re a fan that bases everything on the final score, you wasted nine days. The Bobcats were swept. No other team was swept in the first round.
But the Bobcats got something out of it, and many of their fans did, too.
The relationship between the team and the town has long simmered. Until this season, the Bobcats weren’t good enough, they weren’t exciting enough and they weren’t managed well enough.
Slowly that has changed. They signed their first big-time free agent last summer and there’s nothing more Charlotte could have asked of him. Big Al is humble and funny and, man, can he play.
After hitting his first four shots during the first quarter of the first game of the playoffs, he felt pain in his left foot. It was plantar fasciitis, and he never came close to attaining full speed again.
The Heat still couldn’t stop him. It’s painful, plantar fasciitis. You never forget it’s there. But Big Al didn’t complain. What he had, he gave.
He is the second Bobcat fans have embraced. Gerald Wallace was the first. Kemba Walker will be the third. He might have become the third Monday, scoring 29 in Miami’s victory.
Every team needs a player who makes fans think, “Man, I’m glad that guy is ours.” Big Al is yours.
So is coach Steve Clifford. By the end of the first season, most Charlotte head coaches have a for-sale sign in front of their house. That’s their fault for not renting. Clifford is entitled to stay. They found their coach.
The only player in Charlotte’s rotation older than 30 is backup point guard Luke Ridnour, who is 33. The rest are 29, 29, 27, 27, 26, 23, 21, 21 and 20.
So they have the potential to create not merely a winning team, but a winning program. But they are flawed.
They have a small forward and a shooting guard who struggle to score. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Gerald Henderson combined for 16 points on 15 field-goal attempts Monday.
Kidd-Gilchrist is only 20. He’s younger than rookie Cody Zeller. He brings defense and handles the ball pretty well and he might learn to shoot, perhaps, maybe. He’s their linebacker, and they need him.
Henderson, however, is a shooting guard who does not shoot particularly well. If your small forward doesn’t score, your shooting guard has to. They need to find a starter.
Bismack Biyombo played a nice game Monday, grabbing eight rebounds and scoring seven points. But he’s a special-occasion player. The Bobcats need a backup center who rebounds and consistently poses a threat to score.
They also could use more fans who understand. LeBron James, who again was outstanding, crumbled to the court during the third quarter and grabbed his knee. This wasn’t pretend. He was hurt.
He would be fine, but there was no way to know that at the time.
Some fans cheered the injury. Why? Why would you do that? LeBron is the best player in the game, and he makes big-time basketball (31 points, nine assists and seven rebounds Monday) look effortless.
Those fans are unlikely to change. The Bobcats must.
They have the coach, center, point guard, management and future.
The Bobcats had their best season in franchise history. Next season, the Hornets should be better.