Bobcats use defense to rally past Wizards

Al Jefferson finished with another double-double, but got some crucial help from his teammates.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — For the first 24 minutes, it looked like the Washington Wizards (38-36) were about to come into Charlotte and clinch a playoff berth and likely the six seed in the playoffs. Only the Bobcats (36-38) had other ideas, storming back from a 16-point halftime deficit to hand the Wizards a pivotal loss in the playoff race and throw the sixth spot back up for grabs in the East with the 100-94 win. 

1. When the defense is there, this team competes with anyone. When it’s not, it gets ugly.

After giving up a 40-point second quarter to the Wizards – and digging a double-digit hole at halftime  — Al Jefferson had a message for the scorer’s table when he came over to check in for the start of the third.

"I said ‘Watch this comeback!’" said Jefferson. "And everybody looked at me like I was crazy, so at the end of the game everyone was pointing at me like ‘you said it, you said it.’"

He called his shot because he knew what everyone else in the building knew: The Bobcats defense is a heck of a lot better than the one that gave up a 40-point second, which was fueled by the veteran Wizards trio of Andre Miller, Al Harrington and Drew Gooden.

"I knew once we started playing defense, we were going to have a chance," said Jefferson. "And I felt like if we had a chance at the end, we’d pull it out. And we did."

The defense was stifling in the second half, holding the Wizards to just 34 points. Even better than that was they held the Wizards to just one basket over the last 6:58 outside of a meaningless basket with seconds to go.

"We kind of got a little flustered in the first half. We just weren’t as focused as we usually are," said Kemba Walker. "We came in at half, we just talked about it, regrouped and guys stepped up and made big plays defensively."

The Bobcats know defense is their calling card and if they’re not playing it an elite level, they don’t have a chance against playoff teams. Their offense is still too much of a work in progress and as we saw Monday night, if you can keep Al Jefferson from getting the ball deep, you can shut them down. Repeatedly in the first half the Bobcats tried to get the ball to Jefferson in the post but the Wizards length on the perimeter and scheme — doubling down from the weakside — made it tough to do so.  Jefferson finished with 19 points, 11 rebounds on 8-of-19 shooting but wasn’t as effective as he normally is.

As a result, head coach Steve Clifford went to a lot more pick and rolls with Walker and Jefferson in the second half to stop their ability to do that, and Walker was terrific at creating. He finished with 21 points, 10 assists on 6-of-22 shooting, but all of his biggest plays came in the fourth when they needed him the most and he was great at setting up teammates throughout.

"Kemba was on the attack in the paint," said Clifford. "Pretty much everything with the game on the line was going through him."

2. The Six is back in play and there’s no question the Bobcats should do whatever they can to get it.

On a night the Washington Wizards were hoping to clinch a playoff berth, they instead put the six seed back up for grabs. 

The Bobcats now sit just two games back of the Wizards — and hold the series edge 2-1 — with eight games remaining and one date left between the two clubs in D.C. April 9. 

"We ain’t got nothing to do with that. We’re not worried about nobody but us," said Jefferson. 

But with a 3-0 record against the Toronto Raptors, you can sure bet the Bobcats would absolutely love seeing the Raptors in the first round instead of the Heat or Pacers. Sure the Heat and Pacers have been in free fall in the second half of the season, but both those teams have proven to have the formula in the playoffs. Miami’s getting back healthy and Indiana’s defense is the best in the league. It’s hard to see the Bobcats having a chance against either in the first round, but they definitely would against Toronto — another team, like the Bobcats, that hasn’t been playoff tested.

Both coaches dodged questions about seeding pregame and Clifford won’t talk about it at this point, but this was a huge win for the Bobcats on so many levels. For one, it almost ensures a playoff berth with only Washington, Chicago and Atlanta looming as potential playoff teams over the last eight games of the schedule — especially in an Eastern Conference race where no one seems to want to step up and claim that last spot.

It’s that schedule and Monday’s win that should make the seeding in the east a bit more interesting the next two weeks than it otherwise might have been for the Bobcats.

3. Cody Zeller’s becoming a valuable bench contributor just in time and Chris Douglas-Roberts continues to be the valuable midseason addition he’s been since his arrival from the NBA D-League.

The light looks like it is starting to come on for Cody Zeller. With each game, we’re starting to see more and more of the athleticism that we saw from him in college. This was easily as good as we’ve seen him all year. He’s made progress throughout the year, but he’s been his best over the last month with an upward trend in points and rebounds in March. 

And at no point has he been better than he was Monday with 15 points and 8 rebounds on 4-of-4 shooting and 7-of-8 from the free throw line in only 20 minutes. 

"He was great today," said Clifford. "His energy level, his confidence is starting to grow because his development has been really good defensively and rebounding and now you can see some of his instincts offensively start to come out as he gets more comfortable."

At no point was that more evident than late in the first when he got the ball at the foul line and drove hard right, finishing with his head above the rim for an acrobatic dunk that very few power forwards in the league could have finished. It’s decisive plays like that that show the growth and show the reason for promise going forward.

"Cody was big tonight," said Jefferson.

Zeller wasn’t the only one that was big off the bench either. Chris Douglas-Roberts — the mid-year signee — was superb, especially in the second half, putting up 18 points and 3 rebounds in 27 minutes. Two of his buckets late in the fourth quarter– a driving kiss off the glass to get them within three and a deep three to get them within one — were as big as any in the game. 

"He’s smart and he’s tough and he’s a really good competitor. He made two big plays — the spot up three and also the drive where he got fouled for the and one," said Clifford. "I trust him."

And he’s proven worthy of that trust, emerging as perhaps the most vital piece off of the bench that the Bobcats have.

4. Jefferson took a shot above his eye but should be fine going forward.

Jefferson toppled over on the floor after finishing an and-one in the first quarter, holding his face. It turned out to be a gash above his eye, on which he had to get quick stitches and put a large band-aid over for the remainder of the game. He said it didn’t affect him in the second half but said it must have when he returned in the first because he had been hot up until that point then went cold from his return until halftime.

The worst part he said was the numbing shot he had to get in the locker room, but he had a sense of humor about his latest battle scar after the game.

"I gotta call my agent because my modeling career is over now," said Jefferson with a laugh.