With a Western road trip on the docket this week, Charlotte looked to hold their ground in the playoff chase. The rumored return of their floor general proved to be a bit premature and some unsatisfying news off the court brought rise to some history on it. It was an eventful week marked with some personal disappointments and team successes. Let’s take a look back and see how we arrived here.
- On Tuesday, Rick Bonnell reported that Kemba Walker was close to returning to practice.
- Ben Gordon did not make the initial leg of the current road trip, missing time due to an illness.
- Participants in the Rising Stars Challenge were named on Wednesday. Cody Zeller and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist were not invited.
- Thursday saw the All-Star reserves announced. Al Jefferson was not among them.
- After reports of being close to returning, Kemba Walker suffered a setback and was deemed unavailable for Friday’s game against the Los Angeles Lakers.
- In addition to matching his career high on Friday night, Jefferson is also the first Bobcat to notch 11 straight games with 20 points and to have 3 straight games of at least 30 points and 10 rebounds.
Wednesday, 1/29 at Pepsi Center: Charlotte 101, Denver 98
His jumpshot is awkward The results of said shot are often jarring. Simply put, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s shooting is not considered a thing of beauty. His defense, however? Paint it on a canvas and it could hang in a museum.
The final stroke in Kidd-Gilchrist’s latest defensive masterpiece proved to be a game-winning block of Timofey Mozgov in the closing seconds of Charlotte’s 101-98 victory over the Denver Nuggets. Kidd-Gilchrist’s defensive heroics combined with a hot start fueled by Al Jefferson’s continued stellar play (35 points, 11 rebounds) gave Charlotte the edge they needed to pull out the victory.
“One of the keys to the game was that we got off to a good start,” Bobcats Head Coach Steve Clifford told Stephanie Ready in his post-game comments on SportsSouth. “In the end, we struggled defensively in the second half with the high pick and roll defense. Then, in the last three and a half, four minutes we had good defensive possessions and MKG made a game-saving play at the end.”
Following Charlotte’s aforementioned hot start, Denver rallied behind Randy Foye’s inspired play (33 points, 7 assists) to climb back to within one point of the Bobcats, trailing 53-52 at halftime. Foye’s exploits were sorely need for Denver, as their starting point guard, Ty Lawson, was ruled out before the game and his replacement, Nate Robinson, was unable to return to the fray after he was injured in first quarter action.
The second half unveiled a see-saw affair in which both teams traded the lead back and forth until the final minute.
After a long Foye jumper tied the game at 95, Kidd-Gilchrist collected an offensive rebound and was sent to the free throw line. Converting one of two attempts, Kidd-Gilchrist then played effective defense on Wilson Chandler, forcing a miss and setting up a big shot from “Big Al” that gave Charlotte a 98-95 lead with 23 second remaining.
In attempt to tie the game quickly, Chandler floated a cross-court inbounds pass to Foye that forced him to step out of bounds before he could release his shot, turning the ball over to Charlotte. Sessions was fouled but was only able to sink one free throw, leaving the Bobcats with a 99-95 lead.
After Darrell Arthur knocked in a 3 pointer for Denver with 10 seconds left, Gerald Henderson was sent to the line. Following a less-than-optimal trend, Henderson hit only 1 of 2 free throws leaving Charlotte with a 100-98 lead and Denver a chance to pull even or win the game.
With the ensuing possession, Evan Fournier stumbled into the lane and tossed up an unsuccessful layup that was rebounded by Mozgov with two second remaining. Kidd-Gilchrist then saved the day for Charlotte, erasing Mozgov’s putback attempt. One Jefferson free throw and one errant Mozgov full-court desperation heave later, Charlotte began their road trip on the right foot, thanks to their defense.
“We want to play defense and be a defensive-minded team first, and that’s what we did tonight,” Jefferson told Ready in his interview on SportsSouth. “We kind of got away from it in the second and third quarter, but we kept with it and kept playing defense and things worked out for us.”
Friday, 1/31 at Staples Center: Charlotte 110, Los Angeles Lakers 100
Though his beef would be with the Eastern Conference coaches, Al Jefferson took his All-Star snub frustrations out on a Western Conference team in Charlotte’s 110-100 win over the Los Angeles Lakers Friday night. Jefferson’s classic style of game was simply overpowering even if it may not be fully appreciated.
“There’s nothing wrong with an old-school game,” Jefferson relayed to Stephanie Ready in a post game interview on SportsSouth that was interrupted by Hollywood heavies George Lopez and Danny Trejo. “I know in these times the players are a lot different than the players in the 80s or early 90s, but I let the young guys know there’s nothing wrong with an old-school game. That’s what I’ve got and I just try to make it work.”
And make it work he did. Pick a franchise or personal scoring record and Jefferson just might have broken it. He tied a career high with 40 points. He set a franchise record with his 11th straight game with 20 or more points. He became the first Bobcat in franchise history to score 30 points in 3 straight games. He and Kevin Durant are the only players in the NBA this season to have 3 consecutive games of at least 30 points and 10 rebounds. Not too shabby for a guy who’s not an All-Star.
Not surprisingly, Jefferson set the tone early, scoring 18 of his 40 points in the first half en route to pushing Charlotte to a 13 point halftime lead. And though Jefferson was the driving force in obtaining that lead, he received plenty of help. Charlotte outscored the Lakers 34-16 in the paint in the first half and allowed Los Angeles few 2nd chance opportunities, outrebounding the home team 23-14 in the first half as well. Combine that with holding the Lakers to 41.9% shooting while themselves hitting shots at a 58.1% clip and Charlotte looked to be on a roll.
That roll did continue into the second half. The Bobcats fired off a 15-8 spurt powered by Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (10 points, 8 rebounds) and Gerald Henderson (20 points) to push their lead to 20 with 5:25 left in the third quarter. Not willing to go away easily, the Lakers’ bench hustled their way into a 21-9 run that pulled them to within 8 points with 11:01 left in the game.
With the momentum changing hands, Bobcats’ Head Coach Steve Clifford inserted his trump cards, Jefferson and Henderson, back into the game at that point. The offense then flowed through the veteran low-post operator, with results that pleased Clifford.
“We did a good job executing with the game on the line in the last five minutes,” Clifford told Ready on SportsSouth. “We just played through him (Jefferson) and obviously he was terrific. Gerald Henderson played a really, really good all-around game too. He did a good job on Nick Young for a while. He had a good stretch in the 4th quarter where he kept us going.”
And while Henderson kept things going, it was Jefferson who helped slam the door shut on the Lakers. Upon his entrance into the game at the 10:33 mark, Charlotte went on a quick 10-4 run that gave them a 14 point lead with 5:58 to go.
It was a lead they would not relinquish but instead nurse for the remainder of the game through Jefferson’s masterful post play. Add that to solid team defense which held the Lakers to 38.7% shooting for the game, a 49-41 rebounding edge and a small number of turnovers and Charlotte has something cooking, according to their coach.
“I think our defense is getting better,” Clifford told Ready. “Obviously, getting MKG back has been a part of it, but that’s going to be our recipe. If we’re going to have a chance to keep getting better we’re going to have to defend, rebound and play low turnover on offense.”
Having already surpassed their road win total from last season and now matching their win total from last year (21), Charlotte will have a quick opportunity to get back in the kitchen against the Phoenix Suns on Saturday and see if they can whip up another win with Clifford’s recipe.
Saturday, 2/1 at US Airways Center: Phoenix 105, Charlotte 95
While Al Jefferson had reason to be displeased with not being named an All-Star, the Phoenix Suns’ Goran Dragic had one million reasons to feel the same way or worse. Dragic would have earned a cool million dollar bonus had he made the All-Star team this year. And just as Jefferson took out his frustrations against the Lakers, Dragic did the same to Charlotte in Phoenix’s 105-95 win on Saturday night.
Dragic compiled 25 points and 4 assists while strongly commanding the locomotive that flattened the Bobcats in short order. Playing the second night of a back-to-back and third game in four nights, Charlotte was noticeably fatigued and ill-prepared to compete from the tip.
“That (the fourth quarter) was the only time we tried all night,” Charlotte Head Coach Steve Clifford lamented to Stephanie Ready in his post-game interview on SportsSouth. “We had no readiness to start. The starters weren’t ready at all. We broke the lineup and it got worse. The third quarter wasn’t any better. In the fourth quarter those guys did a good job.”
Charlotte’s lack of readiness was evidenced by their unusually porous defense in the paint. Phoenix enjoyed a 48-26 edge in that category, often getting uncontested layups in the process. This allowed the Suns to shoot 48.8% for the game to Charlotte’s 41.1%. Combine the Bobcats also handily losing the rebounding battle 51-34 and Phoenix stopping the recently unstoppable Jefferson (10 points on 4 of 15 shooting) and you have the makings of a lopsided Charlotte loss.
Following a first quarter that featured a 10 point Phoenix lead that Charlotte cut to 5, the Suns blew the game open in the second after closing the quarter on an 18-6 run that left them with an 18 point halftime lead.
Phoenix would continue to pour it on, slicing through the Bobcats defense to build a 27 point lead at the end of the 3rd quarter. And although Charlotte’s reserves were able to outscore Phoenix’s 32-15 in the fourth quarter, it was far too little far too late to avoid their first loss of this four game road trip.
With that, the Bobcats will have two days off to rest up and find the cure for what ailed them against the Suns before taking on Charlotte favorite Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors on Tuesday.
With the All-Star game on the horizon and Charlotte currently sitting at 21-28, the Bobcats are clearly an improved product form last year’s edition. So what’s made this work and what hasn’t necessarily worked as well as planned? Let’s take a look at Buzz City’s finest to see what’s led us to this point.
What’s Worked Well
Steve Clifford - As with most coaching hires, if the last guy was tall, the new guy must be short. If the last guy wore blue, the new guy must wear red. So it was with Steve Clifford. His predecessor, Mike Dunlap, had little in the way of NBA experience. Clifford had plied his trade as an NBA assistant for over a decade before getting the call to lead the Bobcats.
His experience is rather evident and many respected observers note how well Clifford is manning the Bobcats’ helm. Defense is Clifford’s calling card. His defenses are noticeably more well-prepared as opposed to last year. Statistics bear this out, as Charlotte’s defensive rating this year is currently 101.3 as opposed to 108.9 just a year ago (per stats.nba.com).
Clifford also demands a certain amount of effort in a way that NBA players respect. While his rotations can be questioned at times, the culture he is building in Charlotte is a positive one, and given the history of the team, that may be the most important thing he can do.
Al Jefferson - Jefferson’s signing raised several eyebrows in the offseason. And for various reasons, Big Al continues to raise eyebrows as the season rolls on. Currently averaging a double-double for the season (19.6 points, 10.6 rebounds), Jefferson brings and elite-level skill to the Bobcats in his post scoring. This has been on full display in January, with Jefferson posting eye-popping offensive numbers: 23.9 points per game, 11.3 rebounds per game and 53.7% shooting. His defense can be eye-opening as well, by his own admission. Though Jefferson does struggle on defense at times, he also gives Charlotte an advantage offensively in the post that most teams don’t have and that this franchise has not had until this point.
Kemba Walker - Though Walker is shooting a similar percentage from the field and assisting at nearly the same level as last year, his three-point shooting has risen to 35.5% from 32.2% last year. He has himself to thank for that, not just due to his own work ethic, but in his successful effort to recruit Jefferson to the squad. Before Walker’s injury, he and Jefferson were becoming comfortable playing off each other and represented a potent 1-2 punch that teams must deal with. While Walker draws criticism for looking for his own shot more than a point guard should at times, his ability to break down defenders off the dribble is a tremendous asset for Charlotte, and with time and roster upgrades, stand to pay off handsomely for Walker and the team.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist - Kidd-Gilchrist’s offensive issues are well-documented. His gangly shot needs work and assistant coach Mark Price, one of the best shooters in NBA history, has been assigned that difficult task. Kidd-Gilchrist does not score points at the elite level expected of a #2 overall draft pick. What he does bring at an nearly elite level is defense, particularly one-on-one defense (Carmelo Anthony’s 62 point outburst notwithstanding). His recent absence due to injury showed what Charlotte lacked with him on the court…energy and intensity. Those are also tangible skills Kidd-Gilchrist brings to the table, according to his coach. Having the ability to send a deft defender after an offensive nightmare is not an option every team has. Charlotte does in Kidd-Gilchrist. That advantage has served them well so far and will continue to do so in the future.
Anthony Tolliver - A consummate professional who’s ready to play at the drop of a hat, Tolliver has been a wildly pleasant surprise for the Bobcats this season. He knows what he does well (defense and 3 point shooting) and sticks to it. On a team sorely lacking in 3 point threats, Tolliver’s 5th best in the NBA 43.2% 3 point shooting is a well beyond welcome sight. Pressed into service earlier in the season due to teammate’s injuries, Tolliver has made the case he deserves his time on the court.
What’s Worked Not Quite as Well
Cody Zeller - Being picked in the top five of any draft will bring with it big expectations, regardless of the situation said rookie is placed in. Zeller, the #4 pick in the 2013 draft, has struggled mightily in his transition to the NBA. More a center in his college days, Zeller displayed an ability to shoot with range in his draft workouts and stellar Summer League play.
Those qualities have not been on display during the regular season so far. Compared with other rookies (according to stats.nba.com), Zeller ranks 15th in scoring average (5.1 points per game), 9th in field goal percentage (37.8%) and 7th in rebounding (4.0 rebounds per game). Not what is generally expected from the 4th pick in the draft. Time is still on Zeller’s side, though to improve his standing he must gain weight, become stronger and develop a little bit of a mean streak.
Bismack Biyombo - A very, very raw project when drafted in 2011, Biyombo was forced to play at the NBA level much earlier than he was ready to. Given playing time due to a lack of talent in front of him, Biyombo was the de facto starter at center since his arrival until Jefferson’s signing earlier this year. Now the backup center, Biyombo has spent time in and out of Clifford’s doghouse.
His successes are apparent; he’s the rim protector for this team. Players shoot just 39% at the rim against him. His failures are apparent as well. The idea that as an NBA rotation player in his third season it just became a given that Biyombo would simply catch a pass is telling. His work ethic is unquestioned and he has an excellent teacher in Clifford. The question is, will he put it all together before the Bobcats’ patience wears out?
3 Point Shooting - Despite Tolliver’s torrid shooting so far this season, the Bobcats as a whole are quite literally off the mark in the 3 point shooting department. Charlotte shoots 34.7% from deep, ranking 20th in the league in that category. In an age where three point shooting has become paramount, this is an area that has disappointed and will need addressing in order to build a more complete team.
Despite these shortcomings, Charlotte is currently putting together one of their better campaigns. Not yet at the All-Star break, the Bobcats have already won as many games this year as they did last (21). A tough schedule awaits them after the break as does the trade deadline. The chances to improve are there, but only time will tell what Charlotte does with the landscape ahead of them.
Do What Now?
Though this video suggests Gerald Henderson is mystified by tigers, one could suggest he actually saw this picture of former Charlotte Hornet Kenny Anderson being guarded by Kenny Anderson. The picture, coincidentally, is owned by Kenny Anderson. Or did he really see Mike Tyson with a Yeti? It appears we may never truly know.
The Week Ahead
A light week awaits Charlotte. After wrapping up their road trip on Tuesday against hometown hero Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors, Charlotte will have three days off before playing host to another home state favorite, Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs.
Though it’s a light week, it looks to be a tough one against Western Conference powers. After a spurt of three games in four nights the week prior, Charlotte will look to rest up and possibly regain the services of Kemba Walker in an effort to down their Western foes and keep up in their run for the playoffs.