With four minutes left and the shot clock burning down to the wick, Charlotte Bobcats center Al Jefferson got the ball 30-some feet from the basket. He turned, fired, and watched a bank shot ricochet straight through the net.
“When that went in,” Bobcats coach Steve Clifford recalled, “I said, ‘Yeah, this is our night.’ ”
You could say that. In a 109-87 rout of the Indiana Pacers, the Bobcats shot 51 percent against the NBA’s premier defense. At the other end, All-Star forward Paul George was held to two points on 0-of-9 shooting from the field.
Jefferson was again magnificent, totaling 34 points and grabbing eight rebounds before leaving to a standing ovation with two minutes left.
This was a statement win all around. But for no one more than Bobcats small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
Monday Miami Heat superstar LeBron James scored a career-high 61 points while being guarded primarily by Kidd-Gilchrist. So much public criticism followed that Clifford felt compelled Wednesday to tell media MKG was in no way to blame: That he followed the game plan precisely, but James hit an extraordinary 8-of-10 from 3-point range.
“People say things about him,” Clifford commented on his starting small forward. “But look at our record when he plays and when he doesn’t.”
The Bobcats are 8-12 when Kidd-Gilchrist missed games with injury. They’re 13-10 since his return. And, yes, he had plenty of extra motivation versus George Wednesday.
“The whole Melo thing (Carmelo Anthony scored 62 against the Bobcats earlier this season), the whole LeBron thing. I was fired up for this,” Kidd-Gilchrist said.
It’s been a brutal schedule of late: In succession Kidd-Gilchrist has had to guard Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant, James, George and Cleveland’s Luol Deng is next – all are current or former All-Star small forwards.
“I was locked in tonight,” Kidd-Gilchrist said.
He had plenty of help, Pacers coach Frank Vogel observed: “They’re a great defensive team. Five guys were dialed into what (George) was doing. If he beat his man, there was help. Give them credit.”
This game made the Bobcats 28-33, which matches the combined win total for the previous two seasons. The playoffs are no longer a fantasy. The Pacers (46-15) entered this game with the best winning percentage in the NBA.
The Bobcats had several chances at similar signature wins, leading late in Indianapolis and Miami earlier this season and losing to the Thunder in Charlotte by four points. What made Wednesday different?
“If he goes 16-of-25,” Clifford said, referring to Jefferson’s shooting. “Every time we needed a basket, he scored.”
Jefferson said it’s time for the league to come to terms with the progress this team has made:
“I’m not accepting that guys can look at the schedule, see the Bobcats, and say, ‘We can take the night off.’ ”