Stretching the Field: Jefferson the difference for Bobcats

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Updated: 4/02 2:00 pm

(SportsNetwork.com) - The Charlotte Bobcats had a grand total of 28 wins over the two seasons before landing center Al Jefferson last summer.

So what lured Jefferson to play in such a small market? Was it the lucrative contract or being the sole reason for a Charlotte renaissance?

Jefferson opted for the savior route and has made the difference for a Bobcats team on the verge of its second postseason appearance in franchise history. Not many would have thought the Bobcats would be in this position with the season winding down. All they have to do is turn to Jefferson, a small-town guy with rather large expectations.

Much like a healthy relationship between a loving couple, Jefferson was overwhelmed by the admiration Charlotte showed toward him in the offseason.

"The Charlotte Bobcats did a great job coming at me (in free agency) and made me feel like they were a team that really respected my game and made me feel like a part of the family," Jefferson said in July.

Jefferson has given the Bobcats a low-post presence they haven't had in years, if at all, and has made one of the worst teams in the Eastern Conference the past few seasons a playoff contender. A typical back-to-the-basket player, Jefferson was just named Eastern Conference Player of the Month for March, compiling 24.7 points on 55.5 percent shooting and 10.6 rebounds over 16 games. He also was named Eastern Conference Player of the Week for games played March 10-16.

The 6-foot-10, 290-pound Jefferson is posting an average of 22.3 points and 10.9 rebounds in his last seven games with five double-doubles in that span. A snub for this year's All-Star team, Jefferson has 34 double-doubles this season and is the only player in the East averaging at least 20 points and 10 rebounds. Jefferson and Minnesota's Kevin Love are the only two players in the NBA averaging at least 25 points and 10 rebounds since Jan. 11.

That's why the Bobcats have been trending in a positive direction.

All stats aside, Jefferson has made his teammates that much better, especially guard Kemba Walker, who said he almost shed a tear when Jefferson signed on the dotted line. Walker has scored 20 or more points in five straight and seven of eight games.

Walker, Gerald Henderson, Chris Douglas-Roberts and Cody Zeller are just a handful of players who benefit when opposing teams target Jefferson, but he still puts up impressive numbers on his own.

Jefferson is the top center in the East for what he has done for Charlotte, which has improved dramatically on defense, allowing 97.5 points per game. The Bobcats were second-to-last in that category last season (102.7 ppg). Jefferson is pulling down 8.4 defensive rebounds -- good enough for sixth in the league.

"When we dedicate ourselves and get our mind together and focus on the right stuff, and that's the defense, we're a great team," Jefferson said. "We've got a long way to go, but we can be one of the elite teams in the East."

Charlotte has scored 100-plus points four times in the last five games and is 23-5 this season when scoring that many points. The Bobcats will be in a world of hurt should Jefferson sustain a serious injury over the remaining few games in the regular season.

They are seventh in the East and looking at a first-round matchup with either Indiana or Miami, so it's appropriate to believe the Bobcats have zero chance of making it to the second round.

But Jefferson gives them hope. He said as long as everyone committed to coach Steve Clifford's philosophy, the Bobcats would have a chance. And step one was earning a playoff spot. That will come in due time for Charlotte, which made its only postseason appearance back in 2009-10, when it was swept in four games by the Orlando Magic.

Clifford feels Charlotte has a long way to go before being patted on the back for its success. He saw it first-hand when the Bobcats appeared too confident and needed a late rally to defeat Washington Monday night.

"I feel a sense of achievement within our team that shouldn't be there," Clifford said. "I wouldn't say there is complacency, but we have played with good effort all year and I think right now everyone is telling them what a good job they have done and their minds weren't in the right place."

The Bobcats went 28-120 over the last two seasons before making a push for Jefferson, and are talented enough to avoid a sweep in this year's first-round playoff series. Jefferson spoke like his coach when he said the Bobcats would be well above .500 had they put more of a cohesive effort into the season.

"We can be even better than what we are right now if we dedicate ourselves," Jefferson said.

If a half-hearted approach put the Bobcats on the threshold of a postseason berth, imagine the success a focused 82-game schedule could muster.

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