Anyone still think the Charlotte Hornets don’t miss center Al Jefferson?
I’m convinced Jefferson would have made the difference in overcoming the Houston Rockets Monday. Despite Dwight Howard fouling out, the Rockets outscored the Hornets in the lane 42-28. Yet the Hornets tied the Rockets with 37 seconds left on Cody Zeller’s layup.
Final score: Rockets 102, Hornets 95.
Jefferson was serving the fourth of what will be a five-game suspension for violating the NBA’s anti-drug policy. He’s eligible to return for Saturday’s home game against the Memphis Grizzlies.
Jefferson is becoming high-mileage by NBA standards and was recovering from a calf strain when the NBA informed him of the suspension. But he remains the Hornets’ most effective low-post scorer and the team’s best defensive rebounder.
Had Jefferson been available to deliver his averages this season – 13.7 points and 6.4 rebounds – I suspect that would have been just enough. The Rockets looked fragile Monday as they have all season. Had James Harden not taken 19 free throws, they easily could have lost to a Charlotte team minus Jefferson.
Here’s the thing about Big Al: Hornets coach Steve Clifford is determined to run as many 1-in/4-out sets as possible. The idea, which is becoming model NBA offense, is to surround one formidable low-post scorer with four 3-point threats. That forces the defense to make difficult choices.
Zeller has filled in admirably as the starting center in Jefferson’s absence. He might have found his calling in the NBA, because I don’t know that he’ll ever be a power forward with enough shooting range to stretch defenses.
But Zeller is no Big Al; not as strong, not as consistent on the offensive boards and certainly not as crafty with the ball in his hands in the low block. Few are. There’s a reason teams send double-teams at Jefferson; because you are in deep trouble if you let him go one-on-one against most centers.
As the 17 games Jefferson has played this season illustrate, there will be nights when he’s devastating (he pretty much won the road game in Dallas by himself) and other nights when the matchup doesn’t work and he sits and watches in the fourth quarter.
But the Hornets need options in the middle. Jefferson without Zeller is only so good and Zeller without Jefferson is worse.
Again, the point here is not to degrade Zeller, who has played the best basketball of his two-plus seasons in Charlotte. He has advantages in speed and quickness the Hornets need at center. Both he and the Hornets will benefit from all this recent playing time.
I asked Clifford post-game if Jefferson playing Monday might have changed the outcome. He somewhat changed the subject, saying the Hornets had enough talent to win and noting that failing to get back on defense in the third quarter would have made a difference, too.
Clifford is right about that; in the third quarter the Hornets gave up six fast-break points to Houston without scoring any. The Rockets took 14 free throws to five for the Hornets. But that was also the quarter when Howard committed three fouls in 4 ½ minutes of playing time.
When you are fortunate enough to get a player like Howard to the bench and frustrated (he finished the game with a technical foul and a delay-of-game), you need a weapon to exploit that opening.
That’s why Jefferson back in a uniform Saturday will be such a welcome sight.