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Failure to launch: Charlotte Bobcats drop season opener to Houston

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HOUSTON Before training camp ever began new Charlotte Bobcats coach Steve Clifford called transition defense his “non-negotiable.”

In two stretches of the second half the non-negotiable became a non-starter. The Houston Rockets kept leaking out for easy baskets and that was basically the difference in a 96-83 season-opening loss at Toyota Center.

After a preseason in which the Bobcats played excellent defense, they allowed the Rockets to shoot 56 percent from the field in the second half. Dwight Howard shot 6-of-8 in that span and James Harden shot 5-of-8.

“I just told the guys we made some basic mistakes. In transition, we didn’t get back for a stretch of about 8-10 minutes,” Clifford said. “When the defense was set, we were OK with them.”

That was more in the first half, when the Bobcats held the Rockets to 40 percent shooting to trail by six at halftime.

The Bobcats played respectably in a building where they’ve now lost nine straight. New center Al Jefferson came back from a three-week layoff, due to an ankle sprain, to score 13 points, but he shot just 6-of-19. As a team, the Bobcats shot 37 percent.

Shooting guard Gerald Henderson (11 points off 16 shots) liked his team’s effort Wednesday, but not its precision.

“We have to be sharper, a little more tactical. And it has to be every play,” Henderson said. “We have to put better pressure on them with our cuts. Make Dwight move (defensively) with our offense.”

The Bobcats signed Jefferson to a 3-year, $41 million contract over the summer. He played just one exhibition, plus one quarter, before suffering that ankle sprain. The Bobcats played one way with him – throwing the ball continuously into the post – and very differently without him.

“He struggled a little bit at times. But for a guy who missed so much time, he did fine,” said point guard Kemba Walker (12 points and five assists). “He needs to get back his rhythm, but then he‘ll be a fine addition.”

The game seemed to turn on a long rebound in the second half, when Harden (21 points off 7-of-16 shooting) got behind Jeff Taylor in transition for a layup. A few possessions later the Rockets ran a high pick-and-roll for Harden and Howard (17 points and 26 rebounds) that resulted in Howard’s one-on-none dunk.

That’s not characteristic of the defense the Bobcats played in the preseason, when they gave up the fewest points (83.9 per game) and the third-lowest field goal percentage (.396).

Clifford used 11 of 13 eligible players Wednesday. The only two who didn’t play: Shooting guard Ben Gordon and third-string point guard Jannero Pargo. Why no Gordon? Essentially so as not to steal minutes from Taylor.

“I just can’t play everyone. Nothing against Ben,” Clifford said. “Jeff Taylor has been playing so well he needs to be in the game.”

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