Suns deflate worn-out Bobcats

rbonnell@charlotteobserver.comFebruary 1, 2014 

— Al Jefferson’s streak of 11 games of 20 or more points is history, along with the Charlotte Bobcats’ brief winning streak.

Center Jefferson looked gassed for most of a 105-95 loss to the Phoenix Suns at U.S. Airways Center on Saturday night. He didn’t play in the fourth quarter and finished the game with 10 points on 4-of-15 shooting and six rebounds.

If Jefferson was worn out, it was understandable. He had carried the Bobcats the past seven games, with point guard Kemba Walker out with a sprained ankle. He was coming off his best game of the season – 40 points and 18 rebounds in a Friday victory over the Los Angeles Lakers.

The Bobcats (21-28) had victories over the Lakers and the Denver Nuggets on this four-game West Coast trip.

They trailed 59-41 at halftime and the only thing that kept that deficit from being worse was decent 3-point shooting. Charlotte made 5-of-13 from the arc in the first half, with power forward Josh McRoberts making three of his first five.

Former Duke big man Miles Plumlee scored the game’s first two baskets for Phoenix rather easily over Jefferson in the post. Jefferson never got going offensively in the half, making three of 10 shots from the field.

The Suns (29-18), who were off the previous two days following an East Coast swing, clearly looked like the fresher team. They outrebounded the Bobcats by nearly 2-to-1 (28-15) and scored eight fast-break points to the Bobcats’ four.

Bobcats coach Steve Clifford puts heavy emphasis on getting back in transition. The fact that they weren’t particularly successful at that in the first half reflected both the Bobcats’ wear-and-tear and how deep and aggressive the Suns are.

Phoenix was supposed to be one of the NBA’s worst teams, but first-year coach Jeff Hornacek has them playing efficiently at both ends. The Suns’ ball pressure is excellent, so the Bobcats ended up in constant late-clock decisions. That didn’t go well at all, with the Bobcats shooting 35 percent from the field in the first half.

Phoenix is unorthodox offensively in that the Suns are last in the league in assists, yet are strong scorers. Clifford explained before the game that Phoenix’s roster is filled with players who can break down defenders one-on-one.

Certainly that applies to Phoenix point guard Goran Dragic, who scored 19 first-half points and finished with 25. Dragic’s change of direction off the dribble is spectacular and he’s also dangerous as a 3-point shooter. It’s quite possible Dragic will end up as the NBA’s most improved player this season.

The Suns are also deeper than the Bobcats. Phoenix’s reserves outscored Charlotte’s 29-13 in the first half. Forward Marcus Morris, one of two twins playing for Phoenix, had 15 bench points entering the second half.

The Bobcats again played without Walker. The plan is for Walker to practice Monday in Northern California, then reevaluate whether he plays Tuesday against the Golden State Warriors.

Bonnell: 704-358-5129; Twitter: @rick_bonnell

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