CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Al Jefferson was back — as was head coach Steve Clifford — but neither was enough to offset a miserable third quarter that allowed the Atlanta Hawks (4-3) to pull above .500 with a 103-94 win. Here are four observations from the Bobcats’ home loss:
1. Flashes shown in Jefferson’s return from a nagging ankle injury
The Bobcats had finally cut the deficit to six with just under three minutes left in the game when Jefferson caught the ball on the block. He made a decisive move left, pump faked and got his man in the air, ducked under and attempted to kiss a six-foot leaner off the glass. The shot rimmed out, Jefferson whiffed on the rebound, and the Hawks turned the shot into a five on four break and a trip to the foul line before Jefferson could get back to the paint to help at the rim.
That sequence perfectly encapsulated Jefferson’s night. There were flashes of the nimble footwork that makes him one of the elite of a dying breed — a post scorer. We saw peaks of the attention from defenses that his interior scoring brings. We even saw him drop two dimes to cutting teammates when the double came, showing glimpses of what the Bobcats envisioned when they signed him.
But it’s just not there yet. That’s what essentially a month off does. His skill set was still there but it was rusty and he was way out of shape, which is even more exacerbated for a player like Jefferson whose defense was a lightning rod for criticism at times in his previous stops.
“He’s just trying to find his rhythm. More than anything he showed how competitive he is,” Clifford said. “He’s out there and he’s obviously not in great shape. He played more minutes than I thought he would simply because we played better when he was on the floor.”
Clifford said the struggle more than anything with integrating him back into the lineup was trying to get him the ball. Because post scorers are so rare these days, the Bobcats repeatedly struggled to feed him inside.
“We had some trouble at times because were staring him down. That’s not a good thing to do,” Clifford said. “The ball’s gotta move quickly. You gotta be able to give him a look, move the ball to the other side, give him a look. That’s part of obviously the build up of post up play that we haven’t been able to work on. That’ll take some time.”
Jefferson (10 points and 7 rebounds on 5-of-11 shooting) went scoreless in the first half and said he spent the first half trying to feel himself around. And although he was surprised with how much playing time he got in the second half, he said the additional reps are key to working him back into the offense.
“We just need more reps,” Jefferson said. “It’s kinda unfair to the team with me being out, coming in for one game and then out and then back. But we got to find a way to do it. We all gotta find a way to get on the same page and I think once we do that, we’ll be OK.”
Added Josh McRoberts, who had a season high 19 points: “There’s probably guys that have never played with a post scorer ever in their whole career — high school, college, NBA. So it’s definitely a change when you have one of the best post players in the world down there on the block, you got to be able to adjust and use him and play through him.”
That will get better with time. So will Jefferson’s conditioning.
2. Jeff Teague shredded the improved Bobcats defense
The Bobcats have been much improved this year on defense, ranking seventh in the league in scoring defense heading into Monday’s game, but that defense abandoned them in the third quarter.
Jeff Teague did whatever he wanted on the floor in the second half – and in the third quarter in particular. Teague had 14 points and 12 assists on the night, but nine points and nine assists came in the second half. The Bobcats entered halftime with a 54-46 lead but were beaten 34-16 in the third. And that largely was on Teague, who used a two-man game with Al Horford (24 points on 9-of-15 shooting) to decimate the Charlotte defense.
“We played a solid first half and came out in the third quarter with absolutely nothing — disorganized at both ends of the floor. That was obviously the difference in the game. Three out of the four quarters we played well,” Clifford said. “Horford had a terrific game but Jeff Teague controlled that game from about the last four minutes of the second quarter all the way through the second half. We couldn’t keep him out of the paint, we couldn’t control him in the pick and rolls, and the majority of their shots came directly from him.”
When Teague’s clicking like that with the ball in his hands, the Hawks are a handful to guard. Horford can burn you with the pick and pop or off the roll — same goes for Paul Millsap — and they’ve got perhaps the best shooter in the league in Kyle Korver to burn you on the wings when Teague penetrates. The Bobcats had nothing for that recipe with 16 of Horford’s 24 coming in the second.
“When Al and Paul are playing well, we play well,” Teague said. “I’m always trying to get those guys going.”
He definitely got them going and it absolutely buried the Bobcats. Teams with tremendous offensive firepower might be able to withstand a poor quarter — but the Bobcats aren’t one of those teams. They struggle in the halfcourt sets and aren’t a great three-point shooting team that can pour it on you quickly. They have to work for points and giving up 34 in the third’s not going to cut it very often in this league for them. They did make a mini run to get it to five in the fourth and got three straight stops with a chance to cut it further but couldn’t get a bucket.
“You got to play four quarters in this league. We played a good half to be up 8 then we came out with an entirely different mindset. Lets face it: We’ve got a good team, but we can’t be taking — forget quarters off — we can’t be taking two or three minutes off. We’re not going to overwhelm people, we have to play well for 48 minutes.”
3. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist continues to play in spurts
In the first half, it wasn’t even close who the best player on the floor was. It wasn’t Al Horford or Paul Millsap. Not Kemba Walker or Jeff Teague either. It was Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
He dominated the first half with 16 points on 6-of-10 shooting to go with four rebounds and two assists. Even that funky shooting motion knocked down an 18 footer and went 4 of 5 from the line.
But then he disappeared. He only attempted one field goal in the second half and added two rebounds to his first half total. That’s the type of swings in his game that we saw frequently his rookie year when he looked like the rookie of the year in stretches and looked passive and lost in others.
“Well, his energy dropped. His energy dropped,” Clifford said. “I think our whole team’s energy dropped.”
4. Great to see Steve Clifford back on the sidelines
Head coach Steve Clifford was back on the sidelines Monday night just five days after being admitted to the hospital for chest pains. Health issues with coaches have come into the spotlight increasingly in recent weeks with NFL coaches John Fox and Gary Kubiak’s health scares forcing them to take time away from their team for the foreseeable future. And although Clifford was back on the sidelines, he’s going to have to cut it back for a while, too.
“I’m doing exactly what they tell me to do. I’m going to do a little bit less during the work day, come in just when the team is here. I’m going to work out of the house more, sleep in for a couple of weeks, and I think I’ll be good,” Clifford said.