CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) – Al Jefferson said he isn’t surprised the Charlotte Bobcats are on the brink of clinching a playoff spot.
Nor does the veteran center think this Charlotte team is a one-year wonder.
"We’ve got a long way to go, but we can be one of the elite teams in the East," Jefferson said Tuesday as the Bobcats prepared to visit the Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday night.
When Jefferson signed a three-year, $40.5 million contract in July he insisted he wasn’t coming to Charlotte just to collect a paycheck. He wanted to help change what’d become a losing culture.
So far, so good.
The Bobcats (36-38) have the seventh-best record in the Eastern Conference. They’re 4 1/2 games ahead of ninth-place New York and can wrap up their first playoff berth since 2010 – and second in franchise history – by winning four of their final eight games.
Jefferson has been an integral part of the turnaround, averaging 21.5 points and 10.4 rebounds.
Charlotte has also benefited from the maturation of third-year point guard Kemba Walker and some unexpected contributions from unheralded role players like Chris Douglas-Roberts and Anthony Tolliver.
The Bobcats are hardly a dominating force, but first-year coach Steve Clifford seems to have his team headed in the right direction.
"I thought this could happen for us if we worked for it," Jefferson said. "I couldn’t tell you when I signed that we were going to be here in a playoff run, but I knew that if we locked into what coach wanted us to do and committed and dedicated ourselves to this team, that we were going to have a chance."
Clifford has preached defense – and his players have listened.
Charlotte is allowing 97.5 points per game, the sixth-fewest in the NBA. That’s a dramatic improvement from the previous season when the Bobcats allowed the second-most points in the league (102.7).
Clifford said the key now is players avoiding complacency.
He suggested before Monday night’s 100-94 win over Washington that his players were too busy focusing on what they’ve already done rather than what’s ahead.
"I feel a sense of achievement within our team that shouldn’t be there," Clifford said. "I wouldn’t say there is complacency, but we have played with good effort all year and I think right now everyone is telling them what a good job they have done and their minds weren’t in the right place."
He said that might have contributed to a 110-105 overtime loss at Orlando on Friday.
However, after Clifford’s talk with his players they responded against Washington, pulling within two games of the Wizards for the sixth seed.
As much improvement as the Bobcats have shown under Clifford, Jefferson said they could have been well above .500 had they remained focused at all times.
"We can be even better than what we are right now if we dedicate ourselves," Jefferson said.
The 76ers (16-58) beat visiting Detroit 123-98 on Saturday to snap an NBA record-tying 26-game losing streak, and their only other home victory since Christmas was a 95-92 win over the Bobcats on Jan. 15.
Charlotte has lost six in a row in Philadelphia and is 3-14 there all-time.
The Sixers, though, couldn’t win two in a row for the first time since a four-game run Dec. 29-Jan. 4 after falling 103-95 in Atlanta on Monday. Philadelphia led from the opening minutes until late in the third quarter, when the Hawks closed on a 9-0 run.