Kemba Walker's confident stride onto the court in Oakland fooled me. He looked like he'd been playing as Charlotte's MVP for weeks, not Al Jefferson. As a fan, it heartened me to see his cockiness against one of the best guards in the NBA and one of the league's best offensive teams.
Once the game started, however, fan or no, Charlotte's real MVP destroyed the Golden State Warriors. Tallying another 30-point game and adding 13 rebounds, Jefferson evenly distributed punishment to a bevy of defenders. Andrew Bogut played too slow, Jermaine O'Neal bought the jabs and fakes and no one else the Warriors trotted out had to size or strength to handle him.
Earlier in the season, the Bobcats-Hornets may have tried to create their own shots instead feeding Jefferson again and again, but the recent injury to Walker forced Charlotte's hand.
During Jefferson's incredible run without Walker, the lineup change kept the best passer and shot creating guard out. Ramon Sessions, a more than capable backup, does not have the array of moves or the speed to create his own shot as prolifically as Walker, so Jefferson had to assume a more prominent role for the health of an already underwhelming offense. The results: Jefferson's numbers looked incredible minus a poor team performance in Phoenix last week.
In total, Jefferson went 12-22 from the field against Golden State for his 30 pts. Compare that to the numbers against the Walker-less games:
9-18 (22 pts) vs Toronto
12-23 (24 pts) vs Los Angeles (Clippers)
11-19 (33 pts) vs New York
15-26 (32 pts) vs Chicago
13-24 (35 pts) vs Denver
18-32 (40 pts) vs Los Angeles (Lakers)
4-15 (11 pts) vs Phoenix
Since Walker's return:
12-22 (30 pts) vs Golden State
12-21 (26 pts) vs San Antonio
Not much difference and minus the Phoenix outlier, all at or above 50 percent shooting. Though the sample size is extremely small, Charlotte looked to an established pattern in the past three weeks. They forced defenses to deal with their best player 20-30 times a game and lightened the load on the rest of the Charlotte offense.
When teams like Golden State and the Lakers figured out they did not have the players to compete with Jefferson, they double teamed him and hoped another player would beat them. Neither team had a real chance to double Jefferson with their personnel and coaching styles, so the Bobcats-Hornets advantage worked perfectly.
The San Antonio Spurs, on the other hand, had two strategies to keep Jefferson from tormenting them. Strategy No. 1, early in the game they played him straight up with Tim Duncan. That strategy failed miserably as Jefferson went 6-8 with 12 points in the first quarter. Strategy No. 2, sending in Boris Diaw to guard him from the front and force awkward passes toward the basket. This strategy proved more difficult for both offense and defense, but provided San Antonio one large advantage. Duncan's advanced age may not allow him to play 1-on-1 against a superior big man, but he still plays near-perfect help defense when protecting the basket. Jefferson's fourth quarter numbers differed dramatically after the adjustment, as he went 3-4 and two of those shots came after offensive rebounds/fast breaks.
San Antonio's Jefferson strategy relied on a heavy rotation of double teams and weakside help from a legendary defender, but the Bobcats-Hornets won't face that so much in the coming games. The Spurs have the option of switching strategies with a fantastic bench and Duncan. The Mavericks, Brooklyn, and a home-andhome split vs Detroit shapes up nicely for Jefferson to continue his dominant run.
Walker's return did not quell Jefferson's dominance, but his presence helped the 4th quarter offense immensely in the 104-100 loss. Without him, San Antonio could have pressured any ballhandler they wished - something they do often against teams they know make a lot of mistakes.
Charlotte eschewed a normal Sessions-Walker lineup late in the second half to focus on big men and three-point shooting. An Anthony Tolliver-Josh McRoberts-Al Jefferson squad with Walker and Henderson handling the ball paid off offensively as the Bobcats hung with one of the best teams in the NBA.
The defense, however, failed them time and again in pick-and-rolls and transition, leading to a career night for Patty Mills (32 pts, 6 Reb). That must improve against Dallas with Monta Ellis and Dirk Nowitzki awaiting them.
Walker must develop a relationship with Jefferson this season on pick-and-rolls. Jefferson's biggest weakness in his career has been defense, and Walker plays more pesky 1-on-1 defense than team defense, so both must overlook each other's flaws when playing teams that have multiple capable players in offensive sets. When the pick-and-roll worked as well as it did for the Spurs early, slip screens and step back jumpers - like Mills continually performed - become more readily available. If each game provided a narrative, this loss' would be a story of developmental mistakes. Great offensive execution can only carry a team so far if they falter against quick guards. Walker's return can help, but if he and Jefferson cannot perform well together on defense, their offense will not matter.
All that said, the Bobcats-Hornets' latest stretch against the Western Conference taught fans much about the team. Kemba Walker returned. The team proved competitive on the road and at home against solid squads. They went 3-2 in a series of games that could have defined them as despairingly bad once again. They could go 4-2 in that stretch with a win against Dallas.
Above all else, they defined Al Jefferson in Charlotte. This team now knows who its offensive leader has to be, and who they can rely on when opponent's make him their primary responsibility.
Jefferson may not be an All-Star or a candidate to give chase to LeBron or Kevin Durant. But his dominance this weekend could push Charlotte into the playoffs - they are currently 8th, the last playoff position in the East. If that happens, he'll be the MVP of an unlikely playoff team.
Leadership has its advantages.