Jefferson meets the challenge as Bobcats cruise past Pistons

rbonnell@charlotteobserver.comFebruary 18, 2014 

— Third-string point guard Jannero Pargo didn’t play a minute of Tuesday’s 108-96 road victory against the Detroit Pistons, but that doesn’t mean Pargo failed to contribute.

When Pargo, a veteran of nine seasons, heard center Al Jefferson promise to at least stay on the stationary bike over All-Star break, Pargo challenged him to take the next step.

“He’s our guy. He’s our horse. So I said, ‘Don’t just run. Get in the gym and dribble the ball. Get some shots up,’ ” Pargo recalled post-game. “I felt like the way these two games (against the Pistons) would play out, whoever put in the most work (during the break) would win.”

Pargo’s prediction is halfway home. Jefferson totaled 32 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists as the Bobcats built a 19-point lead and cruised the rest of the way past a Pistons team chasing them for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

This game had stakes. By beating the Pistons for the second time on the road, the Bobcats clinched the season series and a potential tiebreaker to make the playoffs. They host the Pistons on Wednesday night at Time Warner Cable Arena in the last meeting of the season between these teams.

At 24-30, the Bobcats opened a 1 1/2-game lead over the 22-31 Pistons.

Jefferson appreciated Pargo’s prodding.

“He told me (by just running) I’d get 20 points tonight. In the gym, I’d get 30 points,” said Jefferson, who had his fifth game of at least 30 points and 10 rebounds in the past nine.

Though coach Steve Clifford didn’t make a big deal of the consequences pre-game, Jefferson was aware of the Pistons’ proximity in the standings.

“This team is right behind us,” Jefferson said. “If they had beaten Cleveland (in the final game before the All-Star break), we’d have been on the outside (in ninth place). Our guys knew that. We are ready and focused.

“It’s all about the playoffs, and this team is chasing us.”

Considering the stakes, the Pistons haven’t put up much fight against the Bobcats. They blew a 20-point lead in the first game in Auburn Hills. Tuesday, they let the Bobcats build an 11-point lead in the first quarter and never led.

Clifford believes that for all the attention paid to fourth quarters, how an NBA team starts often decides games more than how it finishes. The Bobcats made their first seven shots from the field and finished the first quarter 14-of-22.

Clifford has noticed of late that his team’s moods in practice and shootaround carry over to games. He was particularly happy with how focused the team was practicing in suburban Detroit on Monday evening after 4 1/2 days off for the All-Star break.

“I liked our readiness to start this game,” Clifford said. “We haven’t been good in the second games of back-to-backs. This one (playing the same opponent both times) is like a mini-playoff series.”

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

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