CHICAGO – As time dwindled, the Charlotte Bobcats’ lead over the Chicago Bulls looked proportionately bigger and bigger. During a timeout with 2:43 left Monday afternoon at United Center, it was Charlotte 82, Chicago 73 and you had to think that the Bobcats could almost smell it.
The question was, did they remember what it was?
Coach Mike Dunlap and his team could be forgiven if they didn’t, seeing as how their previous taste of it – winning – had come more than six weeks earlier. That was back on Thanksgiving weekend, a double-OT victory at Washington on Nov. 24, and here the Bobcats were on the brink of a new year, trying to walk out of 2012 with their heads up. Rather than, y’know, skidding out, an 18-game winless streak stretched to 19 and counting.
They made it, closing out the Bulls 91-81 and pinching off another run of futility. The Bobcats suffered through losing streaks of 16, 23 and 18 games in calendar year just completed, yet by winning Monday they assured themselves of four blissful days of 2013 with some, yikes, momentum.
“What streak do you mean, one win in a row?” said Dunlap, for whom deadpan comes naturally.
What a way to start a season and an NBA head coaching career: Charlotte made some quickie, quirky league history by matching its victory total from the previous season faster than any other team. Which is to say, the Bobcats gained their seventh victory in their 12th game, an accomplishment made possible by the 2011-12 edition’s puny 7-59 mark.
That high mark came in the Wizards game but was followed 48 hours later in Oklahoma City by the franchise’s most lopsided defeat, a 114-69 failure against the Thunder. From there, things spun out of control, from a 30-point shredding by San Antonio and a one-point heartbreak at the Lakers to their blown lead of 21 points at home against New Orleans Saturday.
From the outside, they were a team whose agenda ranked “player development” higher than “winning tonight” among its priorities. On the inside, though, the Bobcats were tested – and apparently passed all those tests – in their chemistry, unity and overall absence of finger-pointing.
“We’re a desperate team right now,” Charlotte guard Gerald Henderson said. “A losing streak is tough on you. We had tactical stuff we wanted to take care of, but we just wanted to fight more than anything.”
Definitely the Bobcats were the more aggressive team. They limited Chicago to 35.1 percent shooting and beat the Bulls on the boards 52-49, holding Joakim Noah to just four. They also survived 18 turnovers worth 21 points and 17 missed free throws that would have haunted them had the outcome gone differently.
“Yeah, but we won,” guard Kemba Walker said. “Everybody in the whole world knew how much we needed this win.”
Oh, so they did remember what that was.
“When you go through an entire month of not winning,” Dunlap said, “it really eats at you. Especially for the young guys – they need some confidence. … We’re happy to come in here [and win against] the Bulls. It’s a double-bonus because I have that kind of respect for this team and this coach [Tom Thibodeau].”
Double-bonus for Charlotte, double-whammy for Chicago. One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor, as NBA fan Paul Simon wrote, and the streak-buster for the Bobcats felt like a back-breaker to the Bulls.
This is a proud team in a bad way at the moment, desperate for Derrick Rose to return. Chicago’s attack has gone in the dumpster, averaging 85 points in its past four games. The Bulls never led at any point Monday and when they finally pulled even at 65-65 through three quarters, the Bobcats scraped them off with a 10-0 start to the fourth. Thibodeau’s guys shot 6-of-26 in the period, compounding lousy offense with shaky defense; Charlotte shot 47.1 percent, getting as many field goals as the Bulls (33) in 24 fewer shot attempts.
It was clear afterward that the Bulls felt worse having dropped three of their last four – including a 17-point mess at Atlanta and a Christmas night stinker at home to Houston – than the Bobcats did at any point in their streak. They had just lost by 10 to a team that got outscored by 13.3 ppg across its 18 defeats.
“We’ve got to get ourselves out of this funk,” forward Taj Gibson said. “No one is going to feel sorry for us.”
The conclusion in Chicago was that the Bulls must have taken the Bobcats lightly, trailing all those losses and even playing this one without rookie Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (poked in eye Saturday).
“I don’t know if those guys took us lightly,” Walker said, bristling a bit. “We executed our game plan. We played well. I thought we could have beat anybody today.”
From losers of 18 straight to bravado befitting a brand new undefeated year.