Charlotte Hornets center Al Jefferson wasn’t very good with the ball in the second half Friday, but he was marvelous with words in the post-game locker room.
Last Sunday Jefferson had called point guard Kemba Walker “our superstar, no question,” so I asked Jefferson to describe how important Walker is to this team’s performance this season.
“He’s our motor,” Jefferson replied. “And in case you haven’t noticed, the truck don’t run without its motor.”
Well put. The Hornets had frittered away a 14-point lead and trailed by one with the ball and 10 seconds remaining. Coach Steve Clifford had called timeout because the play originally designed for that possession was going nowhere.
So the Hornets went with the basics: Have center Cody Zeller set a pick for Walker, and let Kemba be Kemba.
This was Indiana Pacers coach Frank Vogel’s nightmare scenario. Vogel had talked pre-game about the Hornets’ recent blowout of the Pacers right before the All-Star break. Vogel had warned his players not to let Walker – the “little jitterbug” were Vogel’s words – beat them to the rim off the dribble.
So that’s exactly what Walker did, hitting a left-handed layup with 2.4 seconds left, the eventual game-winner in a 96-95 victory.
The Pacers’ natural reply was to get the ball to their superstar, forward Paul George. While George had dominated this game with 32 points, he couldn’t match Walker’s feat. His 18-foot pull-up jump shot hit the front rim and bounced away to end this game.
If the Hornets make the playoffs – and I think their chances are strong at 30-27 – Friday might be the night they most remember in the late-season charge. Bankers Life Fieldhouse had been brutal on the Hornets; they had lost 11 in a row in Indianapolis prior to the victory earlier this month.
The stakes were considerable. Because Pacers-Hornets is a three-game series this season, the Hornets now own tiebreakers over both the Pacers and the Chicago Bulls. Tightly packed as the Eastern Conference standings are this season, who the Hornets beat is nearly as important as their victory total.
Walker didn’t win this game single-handedly. Power forward Marvin Williams bounced back from a bad game in Cleveland on Wednesday to finish with 26 points and 13 rebounds. Williams was a remarkable 5-of-9 from 3-point range Friday.
But they don’t win this one without what the Hornets so depend on Walker to deliver: production (22 points and a season-high 10 assists) and poise at the time of greatest stress.
Clifford said the thing he respects most about Walker is his courage. Walker has the emotional makeup to constantly take the deciding shot in a close game and live with the consequences of hit-or-miss.
Jefferson said that courage Clifford speaks of is unshakeable. That if Walker missed 10 of those game-deciders in a row, he’d still bet on Walker to make No. 11.
Walker has been taking and hitting huge shots since his high school days in The Bronx and throughout his college career at Connecticut. It’s as if its imprinted in his DNA.
“Everybody here is counting on me. Everybody knows I love to be in those situations,” Walker said. “My teammates, they say, ‘Ok, it’s winning time’ and give me the basketball.”
That’s because they’ve come to expect what happens next, and it’s often glorious to watch.