Big Al wasn’t doing so well with Big DeMarcus Tuesday night. So after playing mostly vanilla defense the season’s first seven weeks, Charlotte Bobcats coach Steve Clifford opted for some Rocky Road.
Clifford double-teamed Sacramento Kings center DeMarcus Cousins aggressively for much of the second half. That took some defensive pressure off Al Jefferson, and was just enough to secure a 95-87 home victory.
Cousins ended the game with 30 points, 17 rebounds and six assists. Jefferson fouled out in the last two minutes, finishing the game with 10 points and nine rebounds.
But it was the Bobcats who prevailed, improving to 11-14.
Clifford had been advised by his mentors, particularly Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, to go slow in installing defensive principles. Establish the basic habits now, worry about exotic coverages and “special-player” counter-measures later.
“Later” became last week’s road loss to the NBA-best Indiana Pacers. The Bobcats might have pulled that game off had they done something fresh in the fourth quarter to contain center Roy Hibbert and shooting guard Lance Stephenson.
So Tuesday, after the Kings (7-16) trimmed an 18-point first-half deficit to four early in the third quarter, Clifford took his chances, sending help at Cousins (9-of-13 from the field). Often it was power forward Josh McRoberts along the baseline. Sometimes it was the guards – Gerald Henderson (20 points) and Kemba Walker (24) – digging at the ball.
Cousins committed four of his six turnovers in the second half and the Kings shot 5-of-20 in the fourth quarter.
“We talked after Indiana that we’ve got to start doing some things like that,” Clifford said of what he calls “special-player/fourth-quarter” strategies.
Henderson said there’s no doubt Cousins belongs in that “special-player” category.
“Doubling in the post was definitely something we needed to try tonight. He’s so very talented,” Henderson said. “He’s a brute, just tough, and very skilled. And he really knows how to use his body. He’s nimble.”
The Bobcats needed this one because it’s the start of four games in five nights, the most grueling stretch on an NBA schedule. They play at Toronto Wednesday and at Detroit Friday before coming home to play the Utah Jazz Saturday. Those are all beatable opponents, but the Bobcats proved in home losses to the Orlando Magic and Phoenix Suns that they can’t take anyone for granted.
The encouraging thing about Tuesday was a team that so struggles to score ran a smooth offense. Twenty-six of the Bobcats’ 35 baskets came off assists and they matched a season-high with eight 3-pointers made. They made 47 percent from the arc, a dramatic improvement from their NBA-worst 28.8 percent for the season.
“Hey, I told you in training camp anytime we make 8-of-17 3s, we win,” Clifford joked. “If I didn’t say that, I should have.”
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