This city is unavoidably about pack journalism. The line to get into the Charlotte Hornets’ locker room following their victory over the Brooklyn Nets was 30-some deep.
Jeremy Lin was being mobbed. Nic Batum was being mobbed. New York native Kemba Walker surely was mobbed.
So I went against the flow and grabbed a seat next to center Al Jefferson. I wasn’t particularly interested in Jefferson’s 10 points or four rebounds in the 105-100 victory. Rather, I wanted to tap into the knowledge of an 11-season veteran.
Jefferson knows locker rooms and chemistry. There’s an intuitive savvy about Big Al I’ve always liked and respected.
So here is the question I posed: Coach Steve Clifford has said for weeks that the mark of a real playoff team, one with the credentials to advance a round or more, is still improving the last month of the regular season.
So whatcha think, co-captain?
“If you’d asked me this question three days ago, I would have answered we’re (just) getting there. But last night (a 23-point comeback to beat the San Antonio Spurs) really put us there.
“We scored seven points in the first quarter. Kemba had a bad shooting night. I had a bad shooting night. But other guys stepped up. And while Kemba wasn’t shooting well, we still hustled and played defense against one of the best teams of this decade. And then (Tuesday) another great win on the road.
“So to answer your question, yes. But we can’t get satisfied.”
That has been Jefferson’s message for months, that complacency is the clear and present danger for a 41-30 Hornets team that is still learning to manage success. They’ve climbed the Eastern Conference standings to a place where home-court advantage in the first round isn’t a fantasy. But there’s so much work left in the final 11 games of the regular season.
Everything about the past handful of games illustrates their strengths and flaws. When they stick to the script and, to use Clifford’s favorite term, “play with purpose,” they are capable of beating the Spurs and taking down the Heat in Miami.
But if they get sloppy and lack energy, they are totally capable of losing to a lottery team like the Denver Nuggets at home.
When Clifford says “playing with purpose,” here’s what he means: The Hornets committed just eight turnovers Tuesday, and that’s what they needed on the road against a Nets team that still plays hard despite a 19-51 record.
The Hornets have solid balance between offense and defense, but they still don’t have the firepower to just mow through an opponent. But limiting turnovers and making 3-pointers (they again reached 10 in a game) means they can weather a run like Brooklyn’s in the third quarter thatate up Charlotte’s 17-point lead to briefly tie the game.
The Hornets did what good teams do: Not get rattled and let the lesser team beat itself. Brooklyn is pretty awful defensively, particularly along the perimeter. The Hornets shot 71 percent from the field in the fourth quarter and took 13 free-throw attempts to the Nets’ six.
Jefferson and Lin (21 point off the bench) had plenty to do with that. They combined to shoot 7-of-7 in the fourth quarter, with Lin adding three pressure free throws to keep this a two-possession game down the stretch.
So they win and they move on to a much-needed day off from practice in Michigan on Wednesday, then get back to work Thursday.
That’s what playoff teams do this time of year.