This is how it was supposed to look for the Charlotte Bobcats before center Al Jefferson’s first season here was sidetracked by a right ankle sprain:
Jefferson would score 35 points off 20 shots. The defensive attention he draws would open up the perimeter (6-for-14 from 3-point range). And the Bobcats would beat a team like the New York Knicks more than occasionally.
The Knicks might be 15-23, but they entered this game on a five-game winning streak that included beating the Miami Heat. So the Bobcats’ 108-98 victory Tuesday felt significant.
“They played a lot like they played earlier in the year – together,” said coach Steve Clifford, whose team improved to 16-23.
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Certainly a factor in that togetherness was the return of small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. He played for the first time since breaking his left hand in early December. The Bobcats went 7-12 in his absence.
Kidd-Gilchrist finished with eight points and seven rebounds, but those numbers don’t fully convey his contribution.
“You could see the value of Gilchrist,” Clifford said. “Energy and intensity – those are skills. He’s just normally a competitor.”
Kidd-Gilchrist said he was “amped up” to guard Knicks star Carmelo Anthony in his first game back. Kidd-Gilchrist held Anthony to 20 points on 22 shots from the field. That’s six points below his season average.
“I don’t take this game for granted,” Kidd-Gilchrist said. “I was having fun today – smiling and playing a little defense, too.”
Jefferson took care of the other end with his top scoring game of the season. He was 14-for-20 from the field and 7-for-8 from the foul line. Jefferson acknowledged his right ankle still gives him enough trouble that there’s a good chance he’ll need offseason surgery to “clean up” the joint.
“I don’t have the lift off my right ankle,” he said. “I have to jump off my left ankle.”
But this is what the Bobcats envisioned when they signed Jefferson for $13.5 million a season: A player who not only would score as consistently as any in franchise history, but also one who would open shot opportunities for teammates.
It’s no coincidence the Bobcats shot 43 percent from 3-point range. The Knicks gave up that shot to give defensive help in the lane, particularly during the second half. Point guard Kemba Walker hit back-to-back 3s in the second half to break open this game. He finished with 25 points, seven rebounds and five assists.
“More and more, we’re learning to play together,“ Jefferson said of the synergy between himself and Walker. “Now we read each other; when I attack the middle, Kemba comes around,” presenting himself as a target for passes.
“We understand how to play off each other and that will work for me late, opening up the lane.”