Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford believes his team isn’t just good enough to reach the playoffs, it’s good enough to compete successfully.
That isn’t just giddy talk from a seven-game winning streak. Clifford has thought this through for a while and made his case following Saturday’s 125-109 home victory over the Houston Rockets.
"Smart," Clifford said of his players. "You can’t make mistakes in playoff games. That’s why a guy like Courtney (Lee) was such a great pickup. When you’re playing the same team over and over again you can’t make mistakes, you’ve got to be a smart team."
In driving to a 37-28 record these players have shown Clifford considerable intellect. It’s Nic Batum reaching a near-triple double (14 points, eight rebounds and eight assists) while committing just one turnover. It’s Marvin Williams defending for 27 minutes while committing just two fouls. It was Kemba Walker breaking down the Rockets’ interior defense for 26 points.
And it was center Al Jefferson filling in when Cody Zeller got in early foul trouble, and finishing with his first double-double (10 points and 10 rebounds) since December.
So, yes, Clifford loves the collective IQ in that locker room.
"We’re a smart, smart team, so they’re able to adapt to things," Clifford said. "Talent is the biggest thing (in the playoffs) but you’ve got to play smart."
This would be just the fourth playoff appearance in Jefferson’s 11-season NBA career. Other than his rookie season, when he didn’t play much in Boston, this is his best chance to advance to the second round.
Jefferson has said he’s fine with playing as a backup, after returning from knee surgery. That has helped set a tone in the Hornets’ locker room that individual agendas don’t trump the group. That’s not rhetoric, it’s an important trait for this team.
"To have a chance to be a big part of a team that might get home court in the playoffs means a lot," Jefferson said. "This is the best team I’ve been on since my rookie year, with Paul Pierce and them.
"I want us to stay humble, but this is a chance to do something special."
Clifford loves Jefferson’s competitiveness, which showed his first season in Charlotte when he played through a torn plantar fascia to be part of the playoff series versus the Miami Heat.
"This is all I’ve got," Jefferson said of basketball. "This is something I wanted to do as long as I can remember. Sometimes I think that hurts me" as in when he put off surgery on his right knee to address a torn meniscus.
"Going out there limping around on a bad knee hurt me. That’s when coach had to step in and say, ‘Get this taken care of.’ If I can walk I’m going to try to play."
The newcomer in all this is shooting guard Lee, acquired at the trade deadline from the Memphis Grizzlies. Lee played solid defense on perennial All-Star James Harden, who shot 2-of-14 from the field.
Shortly after arriving in Charlotte Lee told Jefferson he could see how much the Hornets play for each other, and that isn’t the case everywhere in the NBA.
That’s the agenda – smart and unselfish – and it’s carrying the Hornets to a good place.