CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Charlotte Bobcats got a pregame pep talk from owner Michael Jordan on Friday night, stressing the importance of stepping up their games for the playoff stretch run.
The Bobcats clearly got the message and proceeded to grind out a workmanlike 101-92 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Center Al Jefferson led the way with 28 points and guard Kemba Walker was brilliant in the fourth quarter, finishing with 20 points and 14 assists, as the Bobcats raised their record to 29-33 and retained the No. 7 spot in the Eastern Conference standings.
It was their third win over the Cavs this season and gave them the tiebreaker advantage should they need it at the end of the season. They also own the tiebreaker over Detroit, so in essence they have a five-game cushion for a playoff spot with 20 games remaining.
Jefferson, the nine-year veteran who signed a three-year, $42 million contract as a free agent last summer, said he was inspired by what Jordan said in the pregame meeting.
“If that don’t motivate you, I don’t know what will,” Jefferson said.
Jordan apparently was not talking about merely making the playoffs but making a serious run in the postseason.
“He told us he was proud of us, but we’ve got a long way to go,” Jefferson said. “We can’t be happy with what we’ve done so far. We’ve got to get better. We’re right there, so now we’ve got to turn it on and keep it on. We have to be focused and locked in. It’s all about growing and being professional. That’s what Michael was saying.”
“He talked about what it takes to play in significant games,” Bobcats coach Steve Clifford said of Jordan. “I think with 20 games left it’s time to start talking about the playoffs and not just qualifying for the playoffs but getting our team game and individual games ready for the playoffs.”
The Bobcats led by as many as 11 points in the first half but trailed 81-80 with less than eight minutes to go. They outscored Cleveland 21-11 the rest of the way.
Forward Josh McRoberts’ 3-pointer with 3:39 left pushed a three-point lead to six, Jefferson followed with a jumper to boost the lead to 93-85 with 3:07 remaining and then Walker sealed it with six free throws in the final minute.
It was not as impressive as the Bobcats’ 22-point win over Indiana on Wednesday night, but it was solid in every way.
“Cleveland is one of those teams that the record doesn’t show how talented they are,” Jefferson said. “They beat OKC in OKC, and that’s something we couldn’t do. They’re one of those teams you can’t sleep on.
“I don’t think we had the mindset we had Wednesday night. But once again, when it got down to the end of the game, we got stops and we did what we had to do. At the end of the day, it wasn’t the best win like Wednesday night, but it was a win. A win we needed.”
Jefferson hit eight of his first nine shots and finished 12 of 18 from the field. Walker was a perfect 9 for 9 from the line in getting his 20 points. The Bobcats also got 14 points from guard Chris Douglas-Roberts, including four 3-pointers in the first half. McRoberts finished with 11 points and guard Gary Neal 10.
Cleveland lost its third straight and fell to 24-39.
Forward Luol Deng and guard Dion Waiters scored 19 points each, but guard Kyrie Irving struggled through a 5-of-17 shooting night from the field and finished with 13 points. Center Spencer Hawes also scored 13 points, and forward Tristan Thompson and guard Jarrett Jack had 10 each.
Cavs coach Mike Brown blamed offensive breakdowns down the stretch for the loss.
“I thought our defense in the second half picked up, but offensively in the fourth quarter we missed shots, we had some decent looks we missed, had the ball into the painted area a couple of times and didn’t convert, and then they were able to get some easy ones because we turned the ball over,” Brown said. “We went from being up one to down six in a hurry.
“Trying to make this run the last 20 or so games here, the sense of urgency and awareness has to be there for 48 minutes. But we had too many lulls, especially offensively in the fourth quarter when we couldn’t get it done.”
NOTES: The Bobcats have now won six straight at home, which is one shy of the franchise record. … This was the third of four games between the teams this season. The teams will meet again in Cleveland on April 5. … The Cavs were without C Anderson Varejao (sore back), G C.J. Miles (sprained left ankle) and G Carrick Felix (left patellar stress fracture). … Bobcats G Gerald Henderson (strained right calf) missed his third straight game, and coach Steve Clifford said Henderson will not play Saturday at Memphis. … The Bobcats have not had C Brendan Haywood (stress fracture left foot) at all this season and have lost F Jeffery Taylor (ruptured right Achilles) for the rest of the season. Clifford said Haywood will see a doctor again next week, but there is still no time frame for his return. … The Cavs will return home to face New York on Saturday night, then head west for games at Phoenix, Golden State and the Los Angeles Clippers.
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