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With Al Jefferson’s foot ailing, Kemba Walker must step forward for Bobcats

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/2014/04/21/18/49/Ven4Z.Em.138.jpeg|214
    Mike Ehrmann - Getty Images
    Kemba Walker #15 of the Charlotte Bobcats looks on during Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals of the 2014 NBA Playoffs against the Miami Heat at American Airlines Arena on April 20, 2014 in Miami.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/04/21/18/10/Zx5rq.Em.138.jpeg|209
    Mike Ehrmann - Getty Images
    Kemba Walker (15) can’t be in the background if the Charlotte Bobcats are to remain competitive with the Miami Heat after Al Jefferson’s foot injury.

MIAMI The smallest man on the court Wednesday will have the biggest role. Kemba Walker, who is 6-foot-1-ish, will mean more to the Charlotte Bobcats than LeBron James will mean to the Miami Heat. LeBron has more help.

This presumes that Charlotte center Al Jefferson is hobbled by plantar fasciitis, a term Charlotte sportswriters simultaneously learned to spell Sunday when head coach Steve Clifford announced Jefferson’s ailment.

When Jefferson returned to the game after he sustained the injury he moved down court like an ice floe. He did move better as the game progressed, perhaps because he received a halfime shot to kill the pain.

The injury, say those who have had it, is not one you can ignore. Every step is another in a continuing series of painful reminders. It limits speed, quick cuts, changes of direction and mobility, which is to say offense and defense.

Jefferson was 4 of 4 from the field before the injury, 5 for 13 after it.

Reserve guard Gary Neal played a gutsy game, imposing himself on the Heat and scoring 17 points. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist played a strong third quarter before picking up his fourth foul.

But neither Neal nor Kidd-Gilchrist is a star. Walker is.

“I do think I’ll have to step my game up and my level of play a lot more, of course,” Walker says Monday via conference call. “We had a stretch this year where we played without Al and we played some very good basketball.

“It was more we all just did a lot more offensively and defensively. You know it was more of a well spread out game, so the numbers were kind of all equal and different guys chipped in. And that’s how it has to be.”

Walker is correct; several players will have to chip in. But he has to put them in position to do it.

Walker averaged 15.5 points, six assists and 2.5 turnovers against Miami in the regular season.

At AmericanAirlines Arena Sunday he scored 20 points, had six assists and six turnovers. He scored 14 points in the second half.

Walker had it working in the third quarter. Those side to side moves, the ones that make it impossible to predict the direction in which he will go, enticed even a few Miami fans to oooh and aaah.

To ask Walker to reprise his role at Connecticut, when he led the Huskies to the 2011-12 NCAA basketball championship, is unfair. The competition didn’t include LeBron.

But Walker is a natural leader. Even when Jefferson is healthy, the Bobcats move to his beat. He doesn’t have to score 30 points against the Heat at AmericanAirlines Arena Wednesday. But he has to go to the basket, find teammates and draw fouls.

Walker shot six free throws Sunday. The other 10 Bobcats that played also shot six – combined.

“I had fun,” Walker says about his first NBA playoff game. “It was a lot of fun just being out there competing, especially against the defending champs. I love the challenge. My whole team loves the challenge and we’re looking forward to giving these guys a run for their money the rest of the series.”

You saw how good Miami was Sunday. You saw the Heat defense force 15 turnovers, saw LeBron take over the game (albeit with Kidd-Gilchrist on the bench) and saw Dwayne Wade remind us he’s still Dwayne Wade.

How do the Bobcats counter that on the road agaisnt the best team in the Eastern Conference?

Walker, who is in his third season, improved dramatically after his rookie year and again after his second. To ask him to improve dramatically before game 2 probably is outrageous.

But with Jefferson hurting the Bobcats have no choice.

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