Charlotte Hornets

Al Jefferson returns and Hornets breeze to easy win, 105-80, over Timberwolves

Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford’s message to his players, following a 105-80 blowout of the Minnesota Timberwolves, amounted to this:

Share the wealth.

The Hornets have won seven of their last eight to climb back into the playoff race in the Eastern Conference. They’ve done so despite injuries to center Al Jefferson and Kemba Walker.

That has meant other players – particularly center Bismack Biyombo and shooting guard Gerald Henderson – doing more. Once the Hornets get whole injury-wise, Clifford doesn’t plan to forget that.

“Biz has been good and Gerald has been good,” Clifford said. “To be good – to run off a bunch of games – everybody needs to be good.”

The Hornets got back Jefferson Monday, following a nine-game absence due to a groin strain. He played off the bench – the first time he has not started in 544 games dating back to 2006.

Clifford plans to play Jefferson as a reserve at least one more game, Wednesday at home against the Miami Heat. Jefferson has no problem with that.

“It was fine. I’ll do it until I get in shape,” said Jefferson. “Biz is playing unbelievably right now.”

The lopsided score – the Hornets led by 31 entering the fourth quarter – allowed Clifford to play Jefferson and Lance Stephenson (back from a pelvic sprain) longer than he would have in a close game.

Jefferson played 25 minutes after Clifford initially planned to limit him to 16. Stephenson played 27. Though Stephenson shot poorly (2-of-9), he contributed nine assists and four rebounds.

“It was a perfect opportunity to let them go a little longer,” Clifford said. “Both are far, far away from playing well night-in and night-out.”

Walker missed his second consecutive game with soreness in his left knee. His status for the Heat game is undetermined.

The biggest factor in this victory was some unexpectedly good 3-point shooting. Two nights after shooting 2-of-15 from the arc against the Indiana Pacers, the Hornets shot 12-of-22 Monday. Henderson (17 points) made three of four 3s and P.J. Hairston made three of five.

Henderson said he and others with expanded roles of late should benefit the rest of the season.

“More than anything it gives guys confidence,” said Henderson, who scored in double figures for the seventh time in eight games. “When guys get injured and other guys step up, they benefit from that experience.”

Dramatic as the Hornets’ improvement was offensively (they scored just 80 points in an overtime game Saturday), their defense is steadily ticking upward. The Timberwolves shot just 36 percent from the field.

The Hornets (17-25) have now held opponents to 22 or fewer points in 10 of their last 12 quarters. This is starting to swing back toward last season when the then-Bobcats were elite defensively.

“We’re getting better, but it’s all about consistency,” Henderson said. “We still have to show we can be that team” all the time.

Clifford knows he can’t count on his team shooting this well every game, but he’s happy with the quicker pace (89 shots taken) and the solid ball-movement (27 assists Monday to 11 turnovers).

“Defense, rebounding and ball-movement,” Clifford summed up. “That’s our chance” for the playoffs.

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