It took the Charlotte Bobcats the first 21 games this season to average at least 90 points per game.
Over the past 15, they average 100.2. The offensive improvement was most apparent Wednesday, when they posted 109 points on 51 percent shooting against the Indiana Pacers – NBA leaders in fewest points allowed and field-goal percentage allowed.
What gives? Center Al Jefferson’s scoring barrage – he’s reached 25 points in nine of the past 12 – is the obvious answer. The subtler one is the ball movement is better, particular as it relates to point guard Kemba Walker in the pick-and-roll.
Over those first 21 games the Bobcats averaged 18.5 assists. Over the past 15 they’ve averaged 21.9 assists.
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The Bobcats have learned to play around Jefferson, to feed off the heavy defensive attention he draws.
“The post-up game is the hardest thing to execute because it’s not how (teams typically) play anymore,” coach Steve Clifford said. “When I first got to the league everybody had a post-up guy or two. Now teams post up some, but it’s not a big, big part of what they do. So guys aren’t as used to playing that way.”
Walker, who strongly advocated signing Jefferson last offseason, knows just what Clifford meant.
“At first it was tough to learn to play through him,” Walker said. “But now that we’ve got it, it’s great to play with him. He draws so much attention it gives us opportunities to get in the lane and make plays. When he’s playing like he’s playing now, we’re really tough to beat.”
In the preseason, shooting guard Gerald Henderson said it was more incumbent on the other players to learn to play off Jefferson than it was on Jefferson to adjust to the Bobcats. Walker sees now what Henderson meant.
“You have to learn to cut off him, to be at the right place at the right time,” Walker said. “If not, a lot of our offense breaks down.”
Clifford likes how Walker is growing as a pick-and-roll point guard. He’s had eight or more assists in half of his past dozen games, including a career-high 16-assist game against the Detroit Pistons.
The pick-and-roll is intended primarily to get Walker open for a shot. But not exclusively for that purpose.
“When I was in pick-and-rolls I was mostly a scorer. And that’s what pick-and-roll situations are. Guys know I’m trying to score,” Walker said. “But I’m more poised now. Things are much more slow for me.
“When I draw another defender, I know my job has been done. I’m just looking for someone who’s open, who’s making shots.”
Often lately that guy has been reserve small forward Anthony Tolliver, ninth in the NBA in 3-point accuracy at 43.4 percent. Power forward Josh McRoberts, one of the best passing big men in the league, said how well the Bobcats are feeding Tolliver shows growth in their ball movement.
“He finds Tolliver for 3s. Or in transition. We weren’t doing that a lot early,” McRoberts said.
McRoberts averages 4.1 assists per game. The only big man with a higher such average is Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah at 4.8. McRoberts said it’s essential the Bobcats find alternative ways to score, to lessen the “grind” on Jefferson as the season wears on.
“He’s the best player. We had to change for him, he doesn’t have to change for us,” McRoberts said of Jefferson.
One of the pleasant surprises, McRoberts said, is how adept a passer Jefferson has been when the double-team comes.
“With some big guys, you throw it to them and you might as well start getting back on defense,” McRoberts said. “With him, you know that when he’s double- or triple-teamed, he’s going to get it back out and make the right read. You make a baseline cut and he’ll get it to you for a layup.”