Charlotte Hornets

Jefferson powers Bobcats past 76ers

The word Charlotte Bobcats coach Steve Clifford kept using was ‘exhale.” It was not meant positively.

For the second night in a row the Bobcats failed to jump on a team headed to the draft lottery. In Boston Friday they paid for that, losing by three to the Celtics. Saturdayat home they held off the Philadelphia 76ers 111-105, but this was no comforting feeling.

Clifford wonders if clinching a playoff spot caused some slippage in focus and attention they can’t afford a week away from the second playoff appearance in franchise history.

“Whether we exhaled or not, I don’t know,” Clifford said. “All I know is if we’re going to play a playoff series competitively, we can’t be giving up fast-break baskets.”

That was a connection between the loss in Boston and this escape against the 17-63 Sixers. The Celtics scored 15 fast-break points and the Sixers 17. The Bobcats have the best transition defense in the NBA (10.2 fast-break points allowed per game), but not so much lately.

The Bobcats played for the second straight game without point guard Kemba Walker, nursing a sore right groin. Maybe that was a factor in them committing more turnovers (15-9) than the far less experienced Sixers.

But Clifford wasn’t letting his players off the hook about transition defense, which he called his “non-negotiable” before training camp ever started.

“We need to recommit to getting back on defense,” Clifford said. “When we’re set, our defense is very good.”

The Sixers led by three at halftime and by six early in the third quarter. The Bobcats held them off primarily because no Philadelphia big man could contain Charlottecenter Al Jefferson.

He finished with 29 points and 12 rebounds, the sixth game in a row when Jefferson reached at least 20 points and 10 rebounds.

Jefferson understands what Clifford meant by the “exhale” risk.

“When we got that big win in Washington (Wednesday) I didn’t feel that way. But after the last two…” Jefferson said. “We’ve got to find some kind of motivation and energy.”

The Bobcats aren’t the only playoff-bound team in self-check mode. But transition defense was the bedrock of the improvement this season, so slippage in that area is worrisome.

“Our defense in transition isn’t what it was even a week ago,” Clifford said. “That’s just everyone committing to run back.”

They’ll get a day of rest Sunday, then regroup at shootaround Monday morning in Atlanta before the last road game of the regular season. The Hawks just clinched the last playoff spot in the East, beating the defending champion Miami Heat by 13. The Bobcats have lost 11 straight to the Hawks.

But there was something to celebrate Saturday: At 41-39 the Bobcats clinched the second .500 or better season in franchise history.

“Forty-one wins, to me is a big deal,” Clifford said. “I’m proud of the guys.”

Related stories from Charlotte Observer