Everyone assumes that the Miami Heat will just roll through the first round of the playoffs, but there is one possible early matchup that could end up like the movie 300, with the dominant army being put to the test by a team that fights together, is a master of defensive tactics and has a strong and massively scary, King Leonidas-like leader.
That would be the Charlotte Bobcats, led by 6'10", 289-pound Al Jefferson, who was recently named the Eastern Conference Player of the Month for March after averaging 24.7 points and 10.6 rebounds and shooting 55.5 percent from the field. So far this month, he's even better at 26.6 points and 13.7 rebounds for the 42-39 Bobcats, who are back in the playoffs for the first time in four years.
"My main goal right now is to turn the Bobcats into one of the elite teams in the East," Jefferson said. "I think that from the beginning, the respect that we now have is great, but I think it's just the beginning of something special."
You might just overlook the Bobcats' success because they never appear on national television—a result of Charlotte's smaller-market status, the team's previous disastrous seasons and its lack of a high-flying, inside-out scoring superstar. But Jefferson, as a down-low anchor, has single-handedly brought back to relevance a team that needed a franchise player on both ends of the court.
So what if his offensive production mostly occurs within five feet of the basket, where he shoots 65.2 percent—the second-highest mark in his career? In a similar way to watching Stephen Curry's crafty footwork off of pick-and-rolls and how he brilliantly gets his shot off in traffic from 25 feet out, there is an art to Jefferson's interior game that should get top-10-highlight love but doesn't in the newer NBA of deep three-pointers and dunks in transition.
"I would say that the biggest thing when I watch him play is that he has great balance; he can pivot on either foot," Bobcats coach Steve Clifford said. "He's very quick and very strong with his moves. He has a variety of fakes at different levels, and he can deliver shots from different angles. So he's really—when you just sit and watch the film some nights—just textbook with those fakes. But I think a lot of it goes back to his balance, and then his strength and quickness. His moves are so quick in (the paint)."
Since 2010, the Bobcats have been more recognized for their owner, Michael Jordan, than for any of their players. But that has changed dramatically with Jefferson, the best traditional low-post player in the East, who has been a main catalyst for the team's franchise-changing defensive turnaround—from dead last in defensive rating in 2012-13 to sixth-best this season.
With the postseason ahead, he'll finally get the TV attention he deserves.
Big Al's Big Adjustment
Recently, the Bobcats unveiled a new website simply to promote Jefferson for the All-NBA team. You see, in Charlotte's little-known NBA country, with the season that Jefferson is having, this is how excitement unfolds. The site's theme is Jefferson as a painter, with this saying on the side of his can: "Big Al's All-NBA Grade Paint Presence, Second to None Trademark Low Post Formula."
For starters, that kind of old-school recognition is a pleasure for NBA legend and Bobcats assistant coach Patrick Ewing.
"It's great," he said. "I'm happy to see a guy like Al embody what the game used to be when we were playing, when there were a lot more bigs. These days, most of the bigs want to be on the perimeter shooting threes and stuff like that. So it feels good to see him get in there and mix it up, but also be able to step out and shoot the face-up jump shot."
But what the creative All-NBA campaign for Jefferson really represents is a vision that Ewing, along with Clifford, had for him before the season started. As Jefferson recalls, "(Ewing) said that he felt like I could be a superstar in this league, but I've got to do it on both ends." Defense was his true calling card, and Clifford also saw potential there, which he mentioned in their first meeting together in Charlotte last summer, before Jefferson signed a three-year, $40.5 million contract—the biggest in franchise history.
"One, he has a natural feel for the game, so decision-making on defense is similar in a lot of ways to offense," Clifford said. "People always look at guys and say, 'The guy knows when to shoot, when to pass and when to drive. He's a good decision-maker.' And the same thing is true defensively—when to help, when not to help, how much to help.
"And then I think the biggest part of it, to be honest, is that it was important to him—and you could see this in training camp—to not be a problem defensively. He did not want to be the issue, so he's worked hard on it and I think Patrick's helped him a lot."
While a sprained right ankle held Jefferson up a bit in the first month of the season—all nine of his missed games came in November—he's gotten better since then as a help defender. That's the biggest thing Ewing has stressed in practice drills and film sessions. In the past, Jefferson was a "poor" defender, according to Synergy Sports, guarding pick-and-rolls. Now, he's "very good" against roll men, only allowing 0.737 points per play (0.935 last season), and "average" against pick-and-roll ball-handlers—two key help formations.
Jefferson knows that if he has a couple of defensive mistakes in a game, he'll be watching film one-on-one with Ewing the next day—going over why his help coverage was late and when he needed to block out.
"He does a good job of playing his own man, but we want him to do a better job as a team defender," Ewing said. "He's doing a pretty good job. It's just that, when you're a coach you want perfection, so you try to get them to improve on every little thing."
"It's just all the little things that you think you know," Jefferson said, "but at the end of the day, throughout this long season, sometimes you have a mental breakdown, and he's that guy that's going to sharpen you back up."
Overall, with the defensive-minded Ewing and Clifford leading the way, Jefferson said "everybody has the same code to be a great defensive team."
"We've got to have that energy every night, and the communication and the mindset of doing it," Jefferson said. "I just think the difference between a great defensive team and a not-so-great defensive team is mind over matter.
"That's why you have the San Antonios and the Indianas and Miamis, and the Bostons with KG (Kevin Garnett) and Paul (Pierce) during their heydays. That's why they were so great—because they went out and had the mindset saying, 'We want to be good on the defensive end.' When we let our defense dictate our offense, we can take it to another level."
On Ewing specifically, Jefferson said, "I love him as a person, as a coach and also as a friend." Most of that involves tough love. "The only thing he doesn't do is praise me when I do good things," Jefferson said. "He says, 'That's what you're supposed to do.'" That includes the offensive end, where Ewing—Jefferson calls him his "third eye"—is quick to point out adjustments to the 29-year-old center.
"If I'm making my move, he's telling me the baseline is open," Jefferson said. "He says, 'They're playing you to the middle, so the baseline is open—maybe your quick-step move is right there.'"
Clifford observes that there's a huge respect level that connects the two of them. "I can just see that in the way they communicate and the way Pat talks to him, Al knows Pat can help him," he said. "And in this league, the trust factor is the whole key to the player-coach relationship."
While Ewing said Jefferson is a "person that's easy to communicate with because he's genuinely a nice person," Jefferson grew up on Ewing and the 1990s New York Knicks during what he called the "best era for basketball."
"Pat is a living legend," he said. "Watching him play, and now to see him coaching and the things he did with Dwight Howard and Yao Ming, he proved himself as a player and proved himself as a development coach. So when I found out that he was on the coaching staff here when I signed, I was just like, 'This is my opportunity to give him the All-Star player I can be—the player that everybody and people who believe in me could see.'"
Occasionally, because they're so close, their chats together won't even involve hoops—just life and business matters.
"There are always times that me and him are just sitting down and just talking," Jefferson said. "There's nothing that I run by him that he doesn't know. I just pick his brain because at the end of the day, that's something I can tell my grandkids—that I had conversations with Patrick Ewing."
Jefferson: The Best I've Felt
Through his improved defensive maneuvering, Jefferson's stamina and footwork have progressively gotten better this season after that right-ankle scare last fall. It was the same ankle that he sprained "really bad" in 2005 and had surgery on the following year.
Jefferson admitted that he returned too soon in early November because he "wanted to play so bad." That's around when he and the training staff realized he needed more consistent conditioning, and he did something for the first time in his 10-year career.
"I did 20 minutes on the bike or the elliptical every day, and I still do that now," he said. "Just 10 years in, it takes a little bit more to get my body going now for me, so I do that every day and I'm feeling so great after I do it—even on game days. It's now part of my routine and it's been working well for me. That's why I'm able to play a lot more minutes than I've been playing, and I'm feeling a lot better."
While his minutes have increased basically every month, so has his first-quarter scoring—from 3.1 to 4.3 to 7.9 to 8.2 to 9.3 to 10.3 points in April thus far. Clifford now routinely plays him the entire first quarter, and compared to the first few months of the season, Jefferson looks a lot more fluid, balanced and energized with his three trademark moves: the jump hook, drop step or up-and-under.
Jefferson, who also finishes strong with a 5.2 fourth-quarter points average, said he has to be craftier now that he's older. He said he even "shocks" himself with some of the moves he pulls off.
"This is the best I've felt in my career just because of the experience I've got now," said Jefferson, who has a league-high 832 post-up plays (nearly one point per play, according to Synergy Sports). "The game is a lot slower to me than it was when I was younger. I understand and see things a lot clearer now than I did before—and guys are learning how to play with me, and I'm learning how to play with him. We've just got to continue to get stops. We're a good running team when we get stops."
Another way Jefferson helps the Bobcats is by setting up first looks well for his teammates, which lead to easier second-pass opportunities. While he only averages 2.1 assists per game, he has a low turnover rate (1.7) based on the amount of touches he gets a game. Considering he operates in a confined space and is often double- or triple-teamed, as he's the team's main scoring threat, Clifford called his decision-making "exceptional."
A unique benefit Jefferson has is his large hands, and he tends to palm the ball away from his body when he catches it in the post, which can throw off his defender. That's because Jefferson is not in an active attack stance, but he's surveying the court—and reading the position of his man at the same time. At the blink of an eye, which makes him even more dangerous, he can put the ball down quickly and has the dribbling ability, strong base and shiftiness to get by anyone and sometimes score over an entire collapsing defense.
Reflecting on his evolution as a player, Ewing said he was more athletic and a better defender than Jefferson but that his protege has a "better touch" around the rim. Jefferson said the way the game has changed with more perimeter play has given him a bigger advantage on offense.
"I'll tell you, (Houston Rockets coach) Kevin McHale let me know that it was OK to still play old-school," he said. "I'm one of the few guys—me, DeMarcus Cousins, Tim Duncan—that play with their back to the basket. And to be honest with you, because the league has changed so much, I think that's why sometimes it's so hard to guard me. People don't know how to defend that no more. People don't play like that no more, so I'm glad that I'm one of the three guys that's very unique in this league and has the old-school game. We'll be around a little longer."
So do Ewing and Jefferson ever go head-to-head for fun or a practice challenge? For Ewing, that's definitely out of the question.
"Those days are long gone for me," he said. "I don't even try to get out there and bang with these guys. I learned my lesson being in Orlando (as an assistant coach)."
While the Bobcats will be facing a tall order come the playoffs—while they're near the top of the league in defensive efficiency, they're near the bottom on offense—some team will learn a similar lesson against Jefferson. So don't expect the Bobcats, with Jefferson and their defensive pressure, to fold easily starting next weekend.
Jefferson has proven to be a one-man army who motivates his men until the very end, as evident in their 20-15 record in games decided by six points or fewer—the highest win total in the league in that category, according to Basketball-Reference.com—through a schedule that had them play the most back-to-back contests this season (21).
"(Jefferson has) had such a terrific year and there are other guys that have played well also, like Kemba (Walker), and we have good defensive personnel," Clifford said. "But I do think it's hard to find many players out there that have had a more positive impact on his teammates than Al has."