CHARLOTTE, N. C. — The first player to exit the Bobcats’ practice gym Monday was Al Jefferson, walking with a noticeable limp in a walking boot strapped up to the mid-calf region of his left leg.
The injury — a strained plantar fascia that he suffered in the first quarter of Sunday’s Game 1 loss to the Miami Heat — has him listed as "day to day" for Wednesday’s Game 2 in Miami, but there’s no question he’s suiting up.
"No question in my mind I’m going to play Wednesday," he said.
The All-Star center said the foot is "a little sore," but the pain is the worst in the morning. The more he walks around, the more it loosens up and the better he feels throughout the day.
"It’s the playoffs. Everybody’s a little banged up, so I know he’ll be ready on Wednesday," Bobcats teammate Josh McRoberts said.
Jefferson came back out of the locker room Sunday to gut it out, recording 18 points and 10 rebounds, but he had to receive two shots just to finish the game. His coach Steve Clifford said the injury’s effect was evident but, surprisingly, not on the end of the floor one would think.
"I’ll be honest, watching the film, I thought it hampers him a lot more offensively than defensively because his lateral quickness. We actually just watched a couple clips of pick and rolls where he defended them fine," Clifford said. "His problem to me is that he can’t pivot hard off of that foot. That’s such a big part of his game. The quick spins, drive and spin, going one way and faking and coming back, and that’s what he wasn’t comfortable doing. I thought it hurt his offense a lot more than his defense."
Jefferson agreed with his coach’s assessment, but said that was all mental. He said he’ll be more prepared for how to deal with that Wednesday and doesn’t think it’ll be an issue like it was Sunday.
He even joked that his coach paid him a compliment during film review Monday, telling him that his defense was better after he hurt his foot.
"Last night when I came back in the third quarter, of course there was pain, but I was just really letting the pain get into my head to the point where a lot of my shots I could have really took my time and made my shots," Jefferson said. "A couple times I stopped short because I was afraid to continue to go on, but it was just pain that me going into this game. Wednesday, I’m knowing the pain I’m going to have to deal with. I’m prepared for it."
Jefferson got an MRI Monday morning, which showed there wasn’t a tear, and Clifford said there’s no chance for further damage if Jefferson plays on it. He won’t practice Tuesday but will ride the bike to stay conditioned. The double-double machine won’t lie, though: the injury certainly was painful when it happened. Next to the time he woke up and had to have his appendix removed, Jefferson said that’s the most pain he’s felt in his life.
"Coach called my favorite play that I love to run, and I just went to turn and when I was getting ready to push off, I just felt it pop. It was like someone shot me," he said. "It was a terrible feeling. I knew something was wrongand I knew it wasn’t going to be something I could just run off."
He had experienced a similar injury his rookie year with the Celtics but said a custom orthotic that he’s worn since alleviated the problem. He’ll wear the same orthotic Wednesday and knows he’ll have to continue to take the pain-relieving injections that helped him get through Sunday’s game for the rest of the playoffs.
"That’s going to be my new best friend," Jefferson joked of the needle injections that he hates.
Clifford has preached since the start of the season that this Bobcats team can’t win if they turn the ball over and allow their opponent to shoot more free throws. They were crushed in both statistics on Sunday, turning the ball over 15 times, which resulted in 20 Miami points. The Heat also attempted 26 free throws to the Bobcats’ 12.
And again, when he watched the tape Monday, those two areas were the ones he pointed to as the difference.
"That’s where it started," he said. "Obviously, what we have to do is we have to get into the details of why those things happened. A lot of it is they’re hard to play against, obviously. They are swarming."
That’s part of the concern with facing the two-time defending champs. That’s what they do. They rank second in the league in turnovers created and second in points off turnovers. Their defense in large part fuels their offense, and Dwyane Wade and LeBron James are nightmares in the open court.
"A lot of it is there’s not a lot of unforced. Their defense was good. It’s not like there was a lot of haphazard (turnovers)," Clifford said. "It’s part of their system and one of the many challenges of playing them. But the bottom line is if we’re going to have a chance of playing better, we can’t turn the ball over."
Clifford said the defense was actually OK, but the offense has to be a lot better. Unlike the Bobcats, the Heat have been in these situations a million times and know what to correct and how to do it when they’re in a hole like the one they faced in the third quarter. But turnovers propelled Miami to an 18-4 run in the final quarter to cement the series-opening victory.
"We gotta be stronger with the ball individually and when we are trying to move it," McRoberts said.
That’s correctable and that was the point that guard Kemba Walker wanted to make after practice. Miami doesn’t make it easy on you offensively, but "little mistakes" held them back from breaking what’s now become a 17-game losing streak to the Heat. His center agreed and reminded the team at practice that when they’re on their game and minimizing their mistakes, they can play with anyone.
"Well, I mean what we’ve seen today on film really kind of let us know that we were right there," Jefferson said. "Miami’s a great team, and it’s an honor just to be playing against them, but when we’re right, we’re a pretty good team, too. We’re here for a reason."
But this is a Bobcats team with little playoff experience, and it’s probably not a coincidence that the player who looked most ready for primetime Sunday was Gary Neal, the former Spur who played excellent in the 2013 NBA Finals. Still, Walker wasn’t buying it, and scoffed at the notion that inexperience or being overcome by the moment could have had anything to do with Sunday’s loss.
"It is just basketball. Even though it’s the playoffs, it’s just another game," Walker said. "We know what’s at stake, but when you’re out there playing, it’s just basketball."