There’s an easel in the Charlotte Bobcats locker room holding up a chart that amounts to the gospel according to Mike Dunlap.
It’s a running tabulation of the Bobcats’ leaders in steals, rebounds and deflections. Point guard Kemba Walker has topped those charts in deflections and steals all season, and Tuesday’s 105-92 victory against the Orlando Magic showed why Dunlap considers that so crucial.
“That Afflalo pass, I just got a little finger on it, but I got it,” said Walker, who scored 20 of his 24 points in the second half.
Walker’s deflection sent Arron Afflalo’s errant pass careening toward the Bobcats’ basket, after the Magic had trimmed a 22-point Charlotte lead to as little as two. Walker laid in the shot, starting a span in the game’s last three minutes when he scored nine points and bagged the 15-38 Magic.
“Kemba’s done that his whole career, but I never take it for granted,” said first-season Bobcats coach Dunlap. “It all started with that steal. We wouldn’t have won this without that.”
That and a whole lot more. Shooting guard Gerald Henderson, who abuses Afflalo in the post every time these teams play, had a season-high 24 points, plus eight rebounds. Power forward Byron Mullens had his third 20-10 game in his past five appearances, with 20 points and 12 rebounds.
Predictably, Dunlap said those rebounds were far more important than Mullens’ scoring. It’s a given 7-footer Mullens will make jump shots. When he grabs tough rebounds and generates put-back baskets, the Bobcats (13-40) become a much better team.
So much better that Mullens had a flight-of-fancy Tuesday.
“I told them we have 30 games left; we can still make the playoffs,” Mullens said, only half-joking.
Reality check: The Bobcats still have the NBA’s worst record. But they’re in striking distance to pass Orlando and the Washington Wizards in the Southeast Division standings.
Avoiding the division cellar requires they show the poise they displayed Tuesday. They aren’t good at protecting leads, even big ones.
In the post-game Mullens rattled off the sizeable leads they frittered away: Both games against the Los Angeles Lakers, the big margin at home against the Portland Trail Blazers and a Magic game they blew in Charlotte.
“We fought for this,” Mullens said. “We can’t keep giving these up.”
Henderson said finishing is the single biggest thing this team can learn over the stretch of the season.
Tuesday can be a bit of a template, Walker added.
“When things get tough,” he said, “I want us to get tougher.”