Brandon Knight’s summation of the fourth quarter was short and to the point:
“Gary did his job,” Milwaukee Bucks point guard Knight said of his former teammate.
In his first trip back to Milwaukee since the trade that sent him to the Charlotte Bobcats, Neal scored 18 points off just six shots from the field in a 101-92 victory. Ten points came in the decisive fourth quarter of a game that started out quite sloppily for the Bobcats.
They won their sixth game in the past seven, improving to 33-34. But other than the final result, there wasn’t much to feel good about off this game.
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“It’s tough playing at noon, but that’s the NBA,” said Bobcats rookie Cody Zeller. “We just needed to play with more energy.”
No doubt. The Bobcats played the first half like they’d crawled out of bed at tip-off. They trailed by as much as nine and the signature defense they have played much of this season was hard to detect Sunday.
They trailed 50-46 after an uncharacteristic half by center Al Jefferson. The Bobcats’ go-to guy had four points in the first half, with Bucks center Zaza Pachulia doing a solid job of keeping Jefferson from his favorite spots on the floor.
Jefferson made some jump shots early in the third quarter that seemed to soften up the Bucks’ defense and finished with 20 points and seven rebounds.
But the real difference-maker was Neal, who was brought to Charlotte to make jump shots and create some spacing around Jefferson. The Bobcats gave up a valuable piece in that trade, sending backup point guard Ramon Sessions to Milwaukee.
Sessions sure looked motivated against his former team, scoring 18 points off 14 shots. But Neal was even better, in just the way coach Steve Clifford hoped when the deal was made last month.
Clifford said it’s taken a while for Neal and point guard Luke Ridnour, who also came to the Bobcats from the Bucks, to readjust to playing a lot. Neal noted this is the first time in his career he’s changed teams in mid-season, and that isn’t easy.
“It’s a whole new system,” Neal said. “You have to learn your teammates and your teammates have to learn you.
“That’s a lot to digest, but I feel like Luke and I have adjusted pretty well.”
This was the third game in the past four in which Neal scored 18 or more points. The other game in that span was when Clifford benched him in Washington over a disciplinary issue.
As to Zeller’s comment about the noon start, this was just the second time this season the Bobcats played an early-afternoon game. The other was a home victory over the Toronto Raptors on Martin Luther King Day.
“When you get a noon start, you have no idea what to expect,” Clifford said. “We’re 60-something games in (to the season) and you take them totally out of their routine.”