One of the biggest plays in Monday night's entertaining and competitive — no, really! — contest between the Charlotte Bobcats and Milwaukee Bucks came late in the fourth quarter, with the Bucks holding on to a 96-93 advantage following a 14-6 Bobcats run over the preceding 4 1/2 minutes. With about 2:30 left and a chance to tie, Bobcats power forward Byron Mullens faced up on defender John Henson. As he began to back the Milwaukee rookie down, Bucks point guard Brandon Jennings dug down with a double, leaving his man, Charlotte reserve Ramon Sessions, wide open on the opposite side of the court.
You can check out the result of the play at about the 40-second mark of the clip below, although you can probably guess what happens next:
Yep, that's right — Mullens skips the pass across the court and Sessions steps into an in-rhythm 3-pointer to knot the game at 96. After some clutch 'Cats free-throw shooting (they went 27 for 30 in the game and now sit seventh in the NBA in team accuracy at the stripe) and a pair of bad final-minute Bucks possessions — a pick-and-roll resulting in an off-balance Samuel Dalembert 15-footer with 49 seconds left and a 27-foot heave by Monta Ellis with five seconds left, both of which came with Milwaukee trailing by two points — Charlotte walked away with an impressive 102-98 win over the Central Division-leading Bucks.
The pass out of the double led to Mullens' only assist of the game and just his 12th in nine games on the season. But according to Mullens, the dime wasn't the rarest thing about the play. From Rick Bonnell at the Charlotte Observer:
Really funny moment in the post-game locker room when I asked Byron Mullens about the pass he threw to Ramon Sessions for the tying 3-pointer. Mullens started chuckling, saying that's the first time he can remember being double-teamed as an NBA player.
Now, memory doesn't always serve in the postgame haze of a rewarding win — Mullens may have seen an odd double-team here or there over the past few seasons — but you can certainly understand why he'd have a hard time remembering any, as keying on him hasn't exactly been at the forefront of many defensive coaches' minds, and for good reason. Heading into this season, he was a career 41.8 percent shooter, a big man who got to the line fewer than three times per 36 minutes of floor time and someone who'd notched more turnovers than assists through three NBA seasons. And even if you discount his barely there first two years with the Oklahoma City Thunder, it's not like Mullens was a point-producing star in more significant minutes for last year's dreadful Bobcats; he finished 133rd in the NBA in points per post-up attempt and 298th in the league in points per spot-up possession, according to Synergy Sports Technology.
Now entrenched as the starting four for coach Mike Dunlap's surprising bunch, Mullens has shown some growing pains — even after Monday's 19-point, 50 percent-shooting performance, he's hitting less than 40 percent of his tries on the season — and some at-times questionable decision-making, as evidenced by the 5 1/2 3-pointers he's taking per 36 minutes despite hitting just 31 percent of them. But the 23-year-old has also shown himself to be a more capable scorer than many thought, shooting just under 71 percent from the restricted area when he actually brings himself in from the perimeter and bumping his post-up scoring production up significantly over last year's numbers; in a small 35-play sample, Synergy has him scoring 0.91 PPP in the post, 18th-best in the league.
All of which is to say: You can kind of understand why Jennings (a defensive gambler and steal-seeker by trade) would think that Henson — a little-used rookie unaccustomed to high-leverage late-game NBA possessions in just his fifth pro appearance — might need a little help down low, and why he'd sag off Sessions, who entered Monday night shooting just 19 percent from 3-point range. Even if doing so meant making a very weird sort of NBA history.
Still, it's hard to shake the unprecedented nature of the defensive decision when it came back to burn the Bucks so bad. Looking back after the game at how Milwaukee let the game slip away late, Jeremy Schmidt of Bucksketball noted that late-game double as a major lapse by Jennings:
[...] but I think the worst thing he did defensively came when he gave a very soft double on Byron Mullens that left Ramon Sessions wide open for a three late in the fourth. Sessions isn't known as a 3-point shooter, but left completely alone, he can do it. And what's the benefit of soft doubling Mullens? [Jennings] wasn't in position to make a play on either guy and it hurt bad.
It sure did, bringing the Bobcats all the way back to level ground and helping them get to 5-4 on the season. Remember, last year's historically bad Charlotte squad didn't get Win No. 5 until its 36th game of the season. With Dunlap leading improvements on both ends of the court — the 'Cats now rank 20th in points scored per 100 possessions and 17th in points allowed per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com's stat tool, up from dead last in both categories a year ago — and the likes of Sessions, sophomore Kemba Walker and rookie Michael Kidd-Gilchrist providing nightly excitement, it seems like Byron Mullens getting doubled is just one of what looks to be quite a bit that's changing in Charlotte.