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Injury shrinks Big Al Jefferson, Bobcats’ potential vs. Heat

Tom Sorensen
Tom Sorensen has been a columnist at The Observer for 20 years and has been at the paper for 25, writing about nearly every sport in the Carolinas.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/04/20/20/56/Q0gVK.Em.138.jpeg|406
    Mike Ehrmann - Getty Images
    If Al Jefferson, left, isn’t effective, the Charlotte Bobcats have no chance to beat the Miami Heat. If Jefferson ceases to be Big Al, if plantar fasciitis limits what he can do when he has the ball as well as when Miami has it, Charlotte’s season ends quietly.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/04/20/19/25/Zs0Zj.Em.138.jpeg|220
    Lynne Sladky - AP
    Charlotte Bobcats' Al Jefferson (25) takes a pass from a teammate over Miami Heat's Udonis Haslem (40) during the second half in Game 1 of an opening-round NBA basketball playoff series on Sunday, April 20, 2014, in Miami. The Heat defeated the Bobcats 99-88. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

MIAMI Unfortunately, it’s this simple.

If Al Jefferson isn’t effective, the Charlotte Bobcats have no chance to beat the Miami Heat. If Jefferson ceases to be Big Al, if plantar fasciitis limits what he can do when he has the ball as well as when Miami has it, Charlotte’s season ends quietly.

Jefferson scored a game-high eight points in the first quarter at AmericanAirlines Arena on Sunday.

With 2 minutes, 10 seconds left in the quarter, Jefferson ran without the ball and felt a pop in his left foot. His plantar fasciitis recurred.

Jefferson returned in the second quarter, but he was a lesser player. He didn’t run down court. He slogged. His pretty moves in the lane, side to side, back and forth, require quickness. And his quickness was gone.

He’d lose a Miami defender, have an open path to the basket and still take the jump shot. He no longer was Big Al.

He finished with 18 points and 10 rebounds, a double-double that was nice but insufficient. His teammates occasionally surged without him. But the Heat opened the playoffs by beating Charlotte 99-88.

Jefferson “is very good with positioning and has an unbelievable touch for a big guy,” LeBron James says when I ask him about Big Al. “His touch around the rim is big-time and that’s why he’s been putting up the kind of numbers he’s been putting up for the last two months.

“He was slowed down a little bit in the second half due to injury. Not sure what it was, but for us we’re going to prepare 100 percent every game (for him) because he’s a huge piece to the puzzle.”

After the game Jefferson walked to a chair behind a table on a stage. You could have held a conversation on Twitter in the time it took him to move up the three steps. His left foot was encased in a walking boot.

“I feel a lot better now but when it first happened there was a lot of pain,” he says. “As the game went on it eased up on me. I just got to suck it up. I’ll be fine for the rest of the playoffs. I don’t know all the details but I know I’ll be OK. Just something you got to play through.”

The Bobcats became a good team this season when Jefferson became healthy. They aren’t a one-man team; point guard Kemba Walker is as integral to their success as Jefferson is.

But Jefferson is their inside scorer. He led the Bobcats in scoring, or tied for the lead, in 41 games. He led them in rebounding in 61.

Jefferson averaged 21.8 points this season. He attracts defenders. Miami has nobody equipped to stop him. He was Really Big Al against the Heat this season, averaging 25.3 points and shooting 57.4 percent from the field.

If he slogs rather than runs, you think Miami will notice?

“You could tell he was out there playing on one leg,” says Miami forward Chris Bosh. “I don’t think that was a secret. Once we saw that, we wanted to go at him and challenge him a lot to see where he was pain-wise and if he could continue. He played 35 minutes and he was still effective.”

But he wasn’t Big Al. He couldn’t impose himself on the Heat.

Bosh knows. He had plantar fasciitis when he played for Toronto. He said it was painful to do anything.

“We made him work and wore into him,” says Bosh. “We made him work on defense.”

Jefferson received a shot at halftime, presumably a pain killer. That’s being a team player. He hates needles.

Medical trainers “took him in and gave him a shot,” says Charlotte coach Steve Clifford. “That’s how he was able to come back. We’re a totally different team (without him). We really struggled offensively, obviously.

“I think if any team loses its best offensive player they become a different team. I don’t know if there’s one team in the league that is more dependent on one guy than how we are dependent on him.”

It doesn’t seem fair, after the season Jefferson and his teammates have had, for him to get hurt in the first quarter of Charlotte’s first playoff game since 2010. It probably isn’t fair that the Bobcats have to play the Heat.

In the playoffs, fairness does not apply. Have to hope modern science becomes especially modern and discovers a plantar fasciitis cure by Wednesday, when the teams next play.

As Jefferson stands to leave the interview room, he pauses before slowly walking away.

“Don’t laugh at me,” he says, smiling.

After all you’ve done for your team, nobody would consider it.

Sorensen: 704-358-5119; tsorensen@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @tomsorensen
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