Charlotte Bobcats center Al Jefferson said his team lost its “heart and soul” and its “fight” when point guard Kemba Walker rolled his left ankle during the third quarter against the Miami Heat on Saturday.
Walker has played in all 190 NBA games he’s been eligible for since he was chosen ninth overall in the 2011 draft. He has been durable almost to the point of reckless, playing with injuries coach Steve Clifford has said would sit most players.
This is different. Walker sprained his ankle to the extent the ball of his joint nearly touched the floor. The Bobcats said in a statement Sunday that Walker is expected to miss 10 to 14 days with a second-degree sprain.
How do they compensate? They must make up for all the things Walker does for this team:
Walker might not be a great shooter (42 percent from the field), but he makes some huge shots in pressure situations. He cemented his reputation by pushing Connecticut through the 2011 Big East tournament, then on to the national championship.
Walker leads the Bobcats in points (18.7 per game) and assists (five per game). He hasn’t always been a great distributor, but that was improving: He had eight or more assists in each of his past three games.
Some of that improvement was in the increased synergy between Walker and Jefferson. The Bobcats want to play inside-out, constantly feeding the ball to Jefferson in the post and forcing defenses to react. Jefferson recently said Walker was learning quickly how best to present himself as a target for passes when Jefferson draws double-teams.
Part of the problem now is that teams will be able to double Jefferson more aggressively because Walker won’t be there to punish them from the perimeter. Also Walker and Jefferson in the pick-and-roll were often the Bobcats’ best late-game strategy to score halfcourt baskets.
Now that falls on reserve point guards Ramon Sessions and Jannero Pargo. Neither plays quite like Walker.
Sessions has exceptional straight-line speed off the dribble, which gets him to the foul line nearly five times per game. But he’s not as good a distributor (3.1 assists per game) or a 3-point shooter (20 percent from long range, as opposed to Walker’s 36 percent).
The Bobcats signed Pargo for the season because Clifford wanted to know he had a reliable, experienced third option at the point who knew the system. He’s played in only nine of 42 games. Obviously that will change with Walker’s injury.
Pargo isn’t a great distributor, but over his 10-season NBA career he has shot 35 percent from 3-point range.
There would never be a good time for Walker to get hurt, but this is a challenging span in the Bobcats’ schedule and they are sitting on the fringe of the Eastern Conference playoff race.
Starting with Monday’s 2 p.m. home game against the Toronto Raptors, the Bobcats will play four games in six days before a four-game West Coast trip to Denver, Los Angeles, Phoenix and Oakland.
“I feel a lot better about our team than a week ago,” said Clifford, who has spoken frequently the past three weeks about a declining focus on defense. “We showed the fight we were showing early in the year. … We’re playing hard and smart.”