Immobilized by a plantar fascia injury first suffered in Sunday's series opener, the big man insisted he'd be ready for Wednesday's Game 2. A dry run in warm-ups opened up the NBA's deepest bag of low-post tricks, "moving in the lane, spinning, putting on those Big Al moves with which we've become accustomed," Tom Sorensen of The Charlotte Observer wrote.
It didn't. Everything he was doing was being done at half-speed (or slower). It was a walkthrough in the literal sense. Jefferson was "not running," Sorensen noted.
That wouldn't change throughout the ensuing 48-minute slugfest. The big man had just one gear available, and even maintaining that speed seemed impossible when an aggravation of the injury again sent him off the floor in the first half:
Coach Steve Clifford tells me that Al Jefferson came off the court and told him he thought he ripped his plantar fascia "a little more"— Rachel Nichols (@Rachel__Nichols) April 23, 2014
"I was just running downcourt," Jefferson said, via Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick. "And I just felt it basically rip all the way through. It came up midway through my foot. And it just was pain. The doctor said there was no more I could do it to hurt it. So I just had to play through it."
That should be the end of the story.
The Bobcats, overwhelmingly outmatched with Miami even at full strength, should be getting their bags packed. Jefferson, who spurred Charlotte's second playoff berth in franchise history, should collect his key to the city and prepare for a summer of recovery back in Mississippi.
That's just not who he is, though.
"I’m the type of guy, if I’m committed somewhere, I put everything into it," he said, via AlJefferson25.com. "My heart. My soul.”
After watching him battle his way through 40 minutes Wednesday night, one thing become certain—he practices what he preaches:
Al Jefferson is moving like Jake Taylor trying to beat out a bunt single. What a gamer.— Zach Harper (@talkhoops) April 23, 2014
His floor time has been painful to watch. He's playing on one leg, leading an undermanned team into war with the two-time defending champion Miami Heat.
He can barely move, and somehow he's still producing. He turned 35 injury-plagued minutes into 18 points and 10 boards in the series opener. He logged another 40 minutes in Wednesday's narrow 101-97 loss to the Heat, this time putting an 18-point, 13-rebound performance in the stat sheet.
He's been collecting cap tips ever since:
Have so much respect for Al Jefferson. After watching Joe Johnson up close last year, I know how tough plantar fasciitis is to play through.— Tim Bontemps (@TimBontemps) April 24, 2014
Al Jefferson deserves all types of respect right now. Putting it all on the line.— Jimmy Spencer (@JimmySpencerNBA) April 23, 2014
Al Jefferson wants this so badly.— Kurt Helin (@basketballtalk) April 23, 2014
Jefferson has inspired, both with his effort and his effectiveness. None of this is easy: not the matchup, the pain from the injury, the wide-eyed supporting cast. Nothing.
"He's not anywhere close to 100 percent," Bobcats coach Steve Clifford said, via Tim Reynolds of the Associated Press. "But we can play through him. ... You've got to respect the fact he's out there battling. He has no mobility, basically."
Jefferson deserves all the attention, praise and respect coming his way. More than that, though, his team owes him something better. They need to pick him up the way he's carried them throughout the season.
He can't be the only offensive option on the team. Not when his body is so obviously restricted.
Kemba Walker has to grab some of the defense's attention. He's not the most efficient scorer (career 39.8 percent shooter) but, outside of a few crunch-time buckets, he's better than he's shown (33.3 percent shooting).
Josh McRoberts has probably maxed out his production (11.5 points, 4.0 assists), but Gerald Henderson (10.5 points on 40.0 percent shooting) and Gary Neal (10.0 points on 33.3 percent shooting) have fallen well shy of their ceilings.
Maybe the bar should be raised for Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. He opened plenty of eyes with his double-double in Wednesday's loss (22 points and 10 rebounds).
"The best game he’s played as a pro," Clifford said, via Rick Bonnell of The Charlotte Observer. "He set a standard defensively and played all-around good."
If the sophomore could make similar performances expected as opposed to surprising, he could do a lot to give Jefferson some badly needed breathing room near the basket.
That's the best the Bobcats can hope for at this point: a few air pockets. They were destined to drown the moment Miami showed up on their postseason dance card. Some spirited, inspiring performances haven't changed that fate.
However, they have shown just how close they are to securing the franchise's first playoff win. Jefferson has done the heavy lifting to get Charlotte this far, but somebody (or, more likely, somebodies) needs to step in and provide that final boost.
The Bobcats aren't winning this series, but a victory might taste just as sweet for this starving fanbase.
For Jefferson, it would mean something even greater. It would mean validation: for taking an offseason chance on a never-was like the Bobcats, for putting up All-Star numbers without getting any All-Star love and for fighting through adversity with the slimmest chance for success.
He's not doing this because he has to. He's doing it because he can. It's time for this team to reward his effort with its own whatever-it-takes mentality. The big man deserves it.