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Key Bobcats reserve Gary Neal returns to practice, plans to play Monday vs. Wizards

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Jeff Siner - jsiner@charlotteobserver.com
Charlotte Bobcats guard Gary Neal releases a three-point shot attempt as the Minnesota Timberwolves’ Luc Mbah a Moute (12) and Dante Cunningham defend during first half action on March 14, at Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte.

Shooting guard Gary Neal practiced Sunday for the Charlotte Bobcats and expects to play Monday against the Washington Wizards, giving the Bobcats’ bench a much-needed boost.

Neal, the best offensive option among Bobcats reserves, missed the past two games with ankle and knee injuries. In those games – a victory over the Brooklyn Nets and a surprising loss to the Orlando Magic – Charlotte’s bench was outscored by opposing reserves 81-48.

Coach Steve Clifford was relieved to see Neal and his 10.5 points per game average up and about in the practice gym.

“We need him. He’s a lot more than just a range shooter,” Clifford said. “He creates a lot of offense for his teammates. He finishes a lot of games and he’s a very good decision-maker. High IQ and very competitive. You can’t lose a guy like that.”

The Bobcats chose to shut down Neal after he sprained his ankle in a loss to the Houston Rockets. He already had a sore knee that had caused Clifford not to use him in the second half against the Portland Trail Blazers on March 22.

It was obvious against Houston that Neal’s injuries were affecting his performance. He shot 0-of-8with most hitting the front rim.

“With the injuries I had – my ankle and my knee – that’s kind of my whole game. If I don’t have my legs I’m half the player that I am,” Neal said.

And now?

“It felt great,” Neal said after practice. “I’m excited about stepping back out there Monday.”

Meanwhile, Clifford was working to get his team refocused after the loss Friday in Orlando. The Bobcats led by 16 in the first half, only to be severely outrebounded (57-36) and play poor second-half defense (the Magic shot 54 percent).

Clifford sees speculation on whether the Bobcats can still catch the Wizards for the sixth seed, thus avoiding the Indiana Pacers or Miami Heat in the first round, as a distraction.

“If we’re walking around saying, ‘If we get to sixth, we play...’ then you don’t understand this league,” Clifford said. “We need to play better defense the way we did before – it’s all the small things, no one big thing. We need to rebound harder than we did the other night. There’s a reason we were the best defensive rebounding team in the league the whole year. But we did none of that the other night.

“I’ve been around the good teams in this league. They don’t sit around saying, ‘I hope we play them, and not them.’ It’s wasted energy. You need to get your games together right now. We have nine games left. We haven’t made, to me, great progress. We’re playing in streaks right now. We were becoming an every-possession team and we got away from that. That’s what we need to be focusing on.”

Center Al Jefferson suggested his team might have gotten complacent against the Magic, which had won just 20 games prior to Friday.

“I think we thought they were going to lay down for us,” Jefferson said. “We’re not where we need to be to be ready for the playoffs.”

Jefferson has been on playoff teams twice in his previous nine seasons. He said mistakes are greatly magnified in the postseason.

“Everything counts. You make one mistake in the playoffs and they make you pay,” Jefferson said. “There are no fast breaks in the playoffs; you’ve got to get back.”

Which made the sloppiness against the Magic troubling.

“We gave that game away Friday night – we can’t do that.”

Rick Bonnell: (704) 358-5129; Twitter: @rick_bonnell
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