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?
"Because,” Clifford said, “he’s a good defender.”
The Bobcats' new coach, previously an assistant with the Lakers, Magic, Rockets and Knicks, said that is evident when you watch film of Jefferson.
“He’s got very good instincts and that’s where it starts,” Clifford said. “His pick-and-roll defense has been good. His team defense has been excellent."
“Coach Clifford came here with a defensive mindset,” Jefferson said. “I criticized my own defense and he said that I’m really not a bad defensive player. It just motivated me. In training camp, we just really worked hard to get that defense the way it is, and that’s what we rely on every night.”
Interestingly, it was his offense that needed help Monday. Jefferson only hit 8 of 23 shots, including those costly misses in the final minute.
Big Al did end the game by draining a buzzer-beating 3-pointer from 41 feet away. That was just the fourth long ball he’s hit in 10 seasons, but it only trimmed the final margin of defeat in half.
“In my opinion,” he said, “we should have won.”
Jefferson, now with his fourth NBA team, has sweeter memories in Utah.
Originally, he was thrilled to team up with Deron Williams after being traded from Minnesota before the 2010-11 season. Big Al excitedly envisioned getting to the All-Star game and the playoffs with D-Will, neither of which happened before Williams was shipped to New Jersey later that season.
You might think Jefferson’s last home game in Utah would’ve been his most memorable one. He did, after all, score 40 points and grab 13 rebounds to keep the Jazz in playoff contention in that April 12 contest, a 107-100 win against Minnesota last spring.
His favorite Jazz memory happened a year earlier when he returned after getting two stitches in a gash above his eye to score eight straight points late in the fourth quarter of a 100-88 win over Phoenix. The victory clinched a playoff berth.
"It's good to make people eat their words. That's what we did," Jefferson said that night, referring to people who doubted the Jazz's playoff chances that season. "Now it's time to go and shock the world."
The Jazz instead got shell-shocked and swept by the Spurs, but just qualifying for the playoffs in that lockout-shortened season exceeded outside expectations.
“Paul Millsap had a great night, kept us in it the whole time,” he recalled. “I just remember hitting the last eight points to kind of seal it. That was my second time ever going to the playoffs. That’s the game that just always stands out to me.”
The Jazz couldn’t make it back to the postseason last spring. General manager Dennis Lindsey then informed Jefferson’s camp that the organization was going a different direction when it didn’t bring back any of its veteran free agents in order to pave way for guys like Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter.
“I respected them because it just really didn’t make sense to bring me back. You’ve got to let them guys (Kanter and Favors) develop and get that experience,” Jefferson said. “I would have loved to come back. Once they told me that (I wasn’t), Charlotte was the next team that showed me a lot of interest and wanted me to be a part of their family.”
As Kanter let Jefferson know earlier this month with that fun letter before their first game and fans showed him Monday, he’s still considered part of the Jazz family.
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