CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Here are three thoughts from the Bobcats’ 109-87 thrashing of the Indiana Pacers (46-15).
The shot clock was running low as the ball squirted out to nearly half court. Chris Douglas-Roberts recovered it and only had Al Jefferson anywhere close to open, albeit 31 feet from the basket. Not exactly Jefferson’s target demolition zone. Nevertheless, he rose up straight in line with the basket and banged it off the glass. It went in. Of course it did. Everything seems to in the best year of his career thus far.
This one — Jefferson’s only three of the game — was the final polish of Jefferson’s waxing of the team tied for the league’s best record.
Jefferson would pour in two more points two minutes later before receiving his curtain call as "MVP" chants scattered down from the rafters. Is it really that far fetched? If the award is truly about the most valuable player in the league to his team, surely Jefferson belongs in the discussion.
His coach, when asked if he’s the MVP, could only shake his head, again mystified at how his star’s old school game continues to taunt and haunt every post defender in near sight.
"Man, I don’t know. That’d be hard. I’m sure other people think theirs is, but he’s just playing at an incredible level," Clifford said.
That’s the type of year Jefferson’s having, one where 34 points and eight rebounds against the league’s best defense registers not as an anomaly but essentially an expectation.
Almost any other night, Jefferson’s 38 points, 19 rebounds he posted against Miami’s swarming defense would have been the talk of the league. But 38 and 19 only means so much when you’re a witness to the game’s biggest star dropping 61 on you. But that big night by Jefferson came against a Miami team lacking a front-line rim protector. This 34 was against the Pacers — owners of the league’s most feared and physical front line in the league. He still went off.
"Well, one thing is he goes 16-25 [from the field]," Clifford said. "Every time we got near the basket he scored."
I’ll admit when Big Al told me before the year that no one in the league could guard him "mano a mano" without help, I bristled. At the time it seemed like bravado that should be reserved for the game’s elite, not a player that had never been able to lead his team to the playoffs. I was wrong. No one wants any part of Jefferson’s pump fakes or his little baby half hook that he gets off with lightning quickness. So many parts of his game just defy conventional wisdom, like the way he’ll spin to his left away from you then still hit you with the right jump hook that teases the defender quickly before usually finding the bottom of the net.
And as Jefferson hit a jumper in the second half and pretender to blow off his pistol and put it back in his holster, you realized the only way teams are going to be able to stop him from scoring is if he decides to stop shooting.
A coach’s relationship with his team almost becomes like a marriage where you can read the mood and predict the actions before they happen.
After giving his squad Tuesday off following a brutal road trip where they competed but ultimately lost in San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Miami, Clifford could see the look in his squad at shoot around this morning. He wasn’t bold enough to declare a victory but he knew they’d show up.
Jefferson said part of that was because they felt they had chances in the three road losses. They were in it with two minutes to play in San Antonio and were in the game in the fourth in both Miami and Oklahoma City.
"We didn’t play bad [on that road trip]. We left that road rip with some confidence," Jefferson said. "We came back home and the schedule didn’t get an easier for us with the best team in the league waiting for us. We responded well, came out with good energy. We knew it was going to be a physical game, but we had to step up."
Boy did they ever, securing their five straight home win that seemingly started from the opening tip. The Pacers are owners of the league’s top field goal percentage defense and league-leading scoring defense but after the Bobcats jumped out to a 28-8 lead after one, you would have thought that title belonged with the home team.
As championship teams tend to do, the Pacers clawed back with a 30-point second quarter and even had it as close as three with 1:36 left in the half. But the Bobcats (28-33) closed out the half with four points from Gary Neal and then Kemba Walker knifed down the lane on a clear out, isolation play before finding Al Jefferson wide open on a wrap around pass for a layup to take a nine-point lead into the half.
"That was a big stretch because it went from three to nine," Clifford said. "I thought that [stretch] along with obviously the first quarter was the difference in the game."
The Bobcats defense — ranked fifth in the league in scoring and field goal percentage — has been the difference in this team all year. But the offense has always lagged behind, specifically the first 30 games. Clifford, though, feels like they might be turning the corner there after shooting 53 percent in Miami on Monday and 51 percent from the field Wednesday.
"I think our ball movement is getting better and we’re searching Al out more when we’re just playing five on five versus making play calls where the defense can just lock in and scheme to take him away," Clifford said. "It helps him and it helps us."
Heading into Wednesday, the Bobcats were 0-10 against the league’s four best records, but four of those losses came by five or less and one came in overtime. They finally turned the corner Wednesday night.
Don’t be fooled by James’ 61 Monday night, Kidd-Gilchrist can really defend.
He heard the whispers after James put up 61 Monday night. And he remembered what it felt like to have Carmelo Anthony go for 62 points and 13 rebounds on him six weeks ago.
That wasn’t going to happen Wednesday night with All-Star Paul George in town. Kidd-Gilchrist came out determined early and made George’s life a nightmare from the outset, forcing him into 0-for-9 shooting to go with five turnovers and only 2 points.
Was he just a little fired up after other night?
"I was," Kidd-Gilchrist said. "The whole Melo thing and the whole LeBron thing. I was just fired up for tonight, ready to go. I had [Kevin Durant] one night, LeBron the next, so I was like ‘O, man, what’s going on?’ But I was just locked in tonight. That’s all there was to it."
Even the other night against James, it was far from Kidd-Gilchrist’s fault. The game plan was begging for James to shoot 10 threes. The game plan was begging for him to settle for jumpers — anything to keep him out of the lane where he’s at worst going to the line for two freebies usually.
"We didn’t want LeBron to get to the basket. When he gets to the basket guys gotta help and he hits corner threes. We didn’t give up one corner three," Jefferson said. "We want LeBron to shoot jumpers and that would be the same game plan if we played them tomorrow. If he sits back and hits step-back threes and threes off picks and he hits 8 out of 10 threes, we live with that. He can get another 61 points if he’s making them like that. So MKG did exactly what the game plan was."
Kidd-Gilchrist may have only had three points Wednesday but Clifford said he felt like he set the tone. So much of Kidd-Gilchrist’s impact on a basketball game can’t be quantified. How much does holding the opposing team’s best player — an All-NBA First-Team candidate — to just two points count for, for example?
"People say things about him, and all I’m going to say is look at our record when he plays and look at our record when he was here," Clifford said. "He does things that make your basketball team better. Three points and he was a major impact on that game."