SALT LAKE CITY — Hours before making his first appearance in Utah since signing with Charlotte, former Jazz center Al Jefferson was asked about what type of reception he expected at EnergySolutions Arena.
“I hope (Jazz fans) welcome me,” he said Monday morning. “I don’t think I left on bad blood.”
He didn’t and, yes, they did.
When the Bobcats and Jazz played a week and a half ago, Jefferson got a fun letter from a former teammate. This time around, Big Al was the recipient of a loud and friendly ovation in his former NBA home.
“I know he liked it here a lot,” Bobcats coach Steve Clifford said, “and he appreciates the fans.”
While that remains true, the affable Jefferson wasn’t in much of a talkative mood after playing and losing to the Jazz for the second time in a 10-day period.
It’s no wonder, really.
In the Dec. 21 defeat in Charlotte, Jefferson missed a couple of putback attempts in the final 13 seconds of the Jazz's 88-85 win.
On Monday, Jefferson tied the game midway through the fourth quarter after his Bobcats nullified a 14-point Jazz lead before falling 83-80. During his 18-point, 10-rebound night, the 6-10 center then hit a couple of baskets to keep Charlotte right there down the stretch.
But Big Al’s go-ahead push shot with 43 seconds remaining was off and his game-tying 3-point attempt with 10 seconds left clanged away, giving Jazz fans who’d cheered for him earlier a much different reason to scream in approval.
“Just missed some easy shots, especially the one I missed when we were down one,” Jefferson said. “We dug ourselves in a deep hole and had to fight all the way back. They made some tough shots down the stretch. They wanted it more than we did.”
It figures. Guys do get up to play against playoff teams, which the 14-18 Bobcats are in position to be thanks to the top-heavy Eastern Conference.
Although that record isn’t anything to go nuts about, Jefferson’s play this season has helped the Bobcats transform into one of the better teams in the East (for what that’s worth).
Not only that, but Big Al’s 289-pound presence in the paint has been one of the key factors in Charlotte becoming one of the NBA’s stingiest squads.
Charlotte entered Monday’s game allowing opponents to score just 93.4 points per game, which is the third-lowest in the NBA and vastly better than the 102.7 ppg the Bobcats allowed a season ago.
Through 31 games, the Bobcats have held opponents to less than 100 points 24 times, including both games against Utah. That’s tied for second-best in the NBA.
And, get this, the Bobcats are ranked No. 2 in the NBA for allowing the fewest points in the paint (38.5).
Everyone knew he could put points up, which he did while leading Utah in scoring (18.5 ppg) while sporting a Jazz uniform from 2010-13. And Jefferson was among the league’s better rebounders (9.5 rpg) while playing at ESA.
But these Charlotte stats — and Jefferson’s contributions on that side of the court — might come as a huge shock to Jazz fans who spent the past three seasons bemoaning Big Al’s defense.
Even Jefferson is somewhat surprised.
“I never thought that my name would be a part of the being the anchor of one of the best top defensive team in the league,” he said. “That really makes me feel good, but it’s a team effort.”
And Clifford credits Big Al for being a key factor in that team effort. But how’s that possible, considering Jefferson’s reputation gained the previous nine years as a one-sided NBA player?
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