The groans were all around the Charlotte Hornets’ locker room after Sunday’s game.
They were just louder and more emphatic coming from center Al Jefferson following a perplexing 94-93 loss to the Miami Heat.
“Missed two or three good shots at the end; the shots that we wanted. Didn’t go in for us,” Jefferson bemoaned after the Hornets’ fifth straight loss.
Did Jefferson feel contact at the end as he desperately tried to beat the buzzer with another attempt?
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“Of course I did,” Jefferson said, “but we weren’t expecting them to make that call at the end of the game.”
No free throws, no satisfaction. The Hornets are 4-10 after wasting an eight-point lead with 6 1/2 minutes left.
The Heat (8-6) had to play superbly down the stretch to win this one. Center Chris Bosh’s baseline jump shot with 31 seconds left proved to be the difference, but the Hornets had two possessions in the remaining seconds to take back the lead.
“He’s a great player, and he hit a 16-foot fadeaway jumper along the baseline,” Hornets coach Steve Clifford said. “You can’t play better defense than that. If you come and double it will be an open 3.”
Cody Zeller guarded Bosh (20 points) on that play and did a fine job of challenging Bosh’s shot without fouling. The Hornets had more chances with point guard Kemba Walker missing a driving layup and then teammate Lance Stephenson stealing the ball for one last possession with 13 seconds left.
Walker created an open 13-footer that missed and Jefferson’s tip-in fell off the rim. That Jefferson didn’t expect a shooting foul was a conditioned response: In the fourth quarter, the Heat took 15 free throws to the Hornets’ three. The foul differential those last 12 minutes was 10-2.
“We’re playing well enough to win every game and the shots just aren’t falling,” said Jefferson, who finished with 22 points and 12 rebounds. “It (stinks) and you feel (lousy) for the next couple of hours, but I don’t think we’re losing our confidence.”
Clifford suspects otherwise. Repeatedly in his postgame comments he mentioned how his players’ body language suggests a team that has been beaten up in spirit by all the early losing.
“The stretch of games we’ve played has taken a toll on our confidence,” Clifford said. “Our guys badly want to win, and they’re working hard at it. I just think in the fourth quarter when things are going against us, it’s the body language. Heads are down, and we’re a better team than that.”
The atmosphere postgame was of extreme regret that such a prime opportunity against a division rival fell through. You could literally hear the angst all around the room.
“Obviously things aren’t going our way,” said Walker (16 points and seven rebounds). “It’s on us. We have to stay together and try to string together some wins.”
On that final play, Walker was guarded by Heat rookie Shabazz Napier, who played one season at Connecticut with Walker. Napier said Walker always wants to drive right, so he did his best to force him left, knowing the pull-up jumper was the next alternative.
“I got a pretty good look at it,” Walker said.
Now it’s about regrouping for a Monday night home game against an elite Los Angeles Clippers team.
“There are a lot of things in any sport you have to learn how to handle – success is one, disappointment is another, frustration is another,” Clifford said. “In these last couple of weeks we’ve had more than our share of frustration.
“We’re trying hard – it’s not apathetic – but its self-doubt and we’re better than that.”