DALLAS — Hey, every ugly streak can’t be slayed overnight.
The Charlotte Bobcats exhaled enough relief Friday night after snapping the 23-game losing streak that ended last year’s historically pitiful season to propel them all the way to Dallas for Saturday’s game against the rested and waiting Dallas Mavericks.
A valiant push by the Bobcats in the second quarter faded at the end of the half and collapsed in the third quarter as Dallas won going away, 126-99 thanks to a barrage of 3-balls. The loss prevented Charlotte from accruing consecutive victories for the first time since the final two games of the 2010-11 season.
And then there’s that little streak that now stands at 16, the number of consecutive losses to the Mavs, who continue to play without injured star Dirk Nowitzki. Dallas is the only team the Bobcats have never defeated since expanding into the league in 2004.
“That one I’m not really paying a whole lot of attention to,” first-year Charlotte head coach Mike Dunlap said of the Mavs’ prowess prior to Saturday’s game. “As far as that stuff goes, the more you focus on that, in that kind of way, it’s distracting to the team. The biggest thing that was taken care of [Friday] night that nobody wanted was the [23-game losing] streak, to have that go on and linger and have that on your record book. So we just got that out of the way and were able to take a breath.”
The Bobcats were grasping for air in the Mavs’ runaway, 36-point third quarter when Dallas nailed six shots from beyond the arc and ended any hope of another Bobcats streak-buster.
No one said this resurrection would be easy. Any ascension from the ashes is going to be a step-by-step process with plenty of setbacks. But the bespectacled Dunlap, predominantly a career college coach and a surprise hire by owner Michael Jordan in June, is determined to have his young roster buy into his way — or they can hit the highway.
That notion was crystallized by Jordan in an interview a few days ago. Jordan said he’s heard whimpering from players about Dunlap’s taskmaster style and long, grueling practices. Jordan told the Charlotte Observer‘s Rick Bonnell that he sees nothing wrong with it: “You can’t say we don’t need that stuff,” Jordan said. “If so, we wouldn’t be going 7-59 as a team.”
A record that went down as the lowest winning percentage in NBA history. Charlotte point guard Kemba Walker was there for all of it, his rookie season a textbook in how to lose in the NBA. His first glimpse of his new coach came during the Las Vegas Summer League. With six players on the summer roster, Dunlap decided to coach the team himself, something rarely seen in the desert.
“My first impression [of Dunlap] was that guys better be in shape coming into training camp,” Walker said. “That was my first impression.”
The 6-foot-1 Walker, the former UConn great who used to give Dunlap nightmares while an interim/assistant coach at St. John’s, is starting at point guard alongside fourth-year guard Gerald Henderson.
Walker said he and his teammates aren’t whining. He said winning is the thing.
“The great thing about M.J., Rod [Higgins, president of basketball] operations and Rich [Cho, general manager], the guys behind the scenes, they brought in a lot of high-character guys, guys who are willing to learn and just get better everyday,” Walker said. “So it’s not a problem with this group of guys at all. We all know what it’s going to take to be a great team in this league. It’s not like he’s killing us. We’re practicing, but a lot of it is him teaching us the game of basketball, teaching us how to win and how to play together. It’s not bad at all.”
They way the Bobcats will win is by focusing on the blue-collar aspects of the game: Defending, rebounding, hustling and taking care of the basketball. The roster is insanely young and Dunlap is going with the pups in the starting lineup, including rookie Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and employing veterans like Ben Gordon, Ramon Sessions and Tyrus Thomas off the bench.
Consider that starting center Brendan Haywood has 11 seasons of NBA service under his headband, five more seasons than the team’s other four starters combined.
“Everybody just accepts their role, does their job and does what they’re told,” Haywood said. “Coach Dunlap is the head man and we’re going to follow his orders.”
There is talent on the roster, but it is not yet a talented team. The Bobcats are rarely going to shoot the lights out. Take Friday’s monumental win over Indiana. Charlotte won in spite of shooting 36.5 percent and getting outrebounded by 11. But, it committed just 11 turnovers, held the Pacers to 39.8 percent shooting and got stops in crunch time when the offense failed to execute.
In Dallas, the Bobcats started slowly, warmed up, eventually shot 42.9 percent and had just 12 turnovers, the mark Dunlap said he doesn’t want to exceed on a nightly basis. But, the defense disappeared as the team ran out of gas, allowing the Mavs to shoot 61.3 percent overall and a crushing 64.0 percent from 3-point range.
The learning process started in Vegas. It will continue all season.
“I wanted to develop a relationship with these guys so I could get ahead of it,” Dunlap said of coaching the summer squad. “Two, is to sharpen the knife and get into the NBA game as soon as possible and three is kind of get a blueprint in as this is how we’re going to play. We pressed the whole time, we did some things that are unusual, but we showed that, hey, this is how we’ve got to play to win.”
It didn’t work on Saturday, the second night of an emotional back-to-back. The Bobcats will need everything to go right to make the playoffs, but if they can stick to the program another streak-buster or two are bound to come sooner rather than later.