That crowds surrounding Charlotte Hornets center Al Jefferson every time he touches the ball aren’t going away until one of his teammates shows he can efficiently make shots.
The Hornets are on a five-game losing streak and had fallen from a tie for seventh in the Eastern Conference to 11th before losses by Indiana and Detroit on Tuesday. Charlotte is a half game ahead of those two teams in ninth place, but still a game behind Brooklyn for the final playoff spot. Much of the problem of late has been how aggressively – and successfully – defenses have attacked Jefferson.
Jefferson’s performance the second half of last season (he averaged 24.1 point per game during the last 30 regular season games) was the single biggest reason this franchise went to the playoffs. Now, with point guard Kemba Walker out until mid-March following knee surgery, teams are selling out to stop Jefferson.
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Jefferson has seen double-teams throughout his 11-season NBA career. This is different only by degree. The Detroit Pistons sent two and sometimes three players to guard Jefferson on Feb. 10 and won in Charlotte 106-78. Jefferson had 13 points in that game, 4.2 below his average for the season.
Maybe the video of that game got around the league, because teams are now doubling Jefferson as aggressively as at any time during his career. The Dallas Mavericks ran extra defenders at him frequently in the first half Sunday and Jefferson ended up scoring eight points on 4-of-16 shooting.
Jefferson took the blame for not figuring a solution to Dallas’ strategy.
“In the first half they were doubling me,” he said. “In the second half they were calling ‘double,’ but didn’t (send another defender). I just couldn’t make my shots. No excuse.
“I’ve been double-teamed my whole career so there’s no reason to blame the double-team. I just didn’t make my shots.”
Jefferson is correct that he’s missed some shots of late that he would typically make. But it’s more complex than that.
Before the Bobcats signed Jefferson two summers ago, they were a particularly easy team to guard. There was no one player worthy of drawing a double-team, and as coach Steve Clifford often says, that’s the goal of an NBA offense – to make the other team double.
Double-teaming is an admission a player can’t be guarded one-on-one, which is supposed to create weaknesses elsewhere.
If teams aren’t worried about leaving other players along the perimeter, they can double-team Jefferson with impunity. That’s what has happened of late.
“It’s part of the game – a sign of respect,” Jefferson said of the double-teams. “Teammates around me have to hit shots. Once they do that, they have to come out of it.”
Jefferson said this is something they can work through, just as they did last season.
“We’re going through a little slump right now. We’re close to where we need to be on offense and defense,” Jefferson said following the loss to Dallas. “We’ve just got to get there because time is running out.
“We’ve got to make them pay. Got to keep working at it because there are ways around it.”
Bonnell: 704-358-5129; Twitter: @rick_bonnell