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Al’s 18-and-12 Leads Buzz Past Wiz

Not much has been able to slow down the Charlotte Hornets of late and on Monday night, Al Jefferson and his buzzing brethren picked up a road win over one of the top teams in the East to continue their resurgence.

Big Al posted his 13th double-double this season, and third his the last five games with 18 points and 12 rebounds to helped the Hornets top the Washington Wizards 92-88 Monday night. With the win, Charlotte improved to 11-3 in their last 14 games despite missing Al for seven of those games and point guard Kemba Walker, who remains out with a knee injury for six.

Afterward, No. 25 noted that over the extended absences of various key players from their rotation during his time in Charlotte, the Hornets have learned to pick each other up.

“Last year I was the one who was out and the team still played well. Then I came back and Kemba missed some time with his ankle,” Al said. “This team is used to playing without key guys. Coach gave us confidence that other guys would step up. That’s what we do and that’s why we have a great team.”

Charlotte Hornets v Washington Wizards

That team-first mentality has proven crucial for Charlotte in recent weeks. The Hornets moved to 5-1 without Walker, and they have come together remarkably well in his stead. While Al has been the most consistent of the bunch, he was joined by several other major contributors in the nation’s capital.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist added 13 points and 13 rebounds, Brian Roberts matched Al’s 18 points, and Gerald Henderson tallied 17 points for the Hornets, who have won six of eight to work themselves into playoff position in the Eastern Conference.

“We’re all pros here. We’re all on this team for a reason. And when our main guy goes down, we have guys to step up. Brian [Roberts] was a good pick up for us in the offseason and he’s stepping up now. That’s what we need. We need everybody to step up. We knew with Kemba, the things he was giving us every night, now that was missing and everybody had to step up and try to replace that. That’s what we’ve been doing.”

Al led that charge in D.C. on both ends of the floor, and two nights after helping his squad trounce the Denver Nuggets on the road, the Big Fella made life difficult for Washington’s bruising big men, Marcin Gortat and Nene Hilario. Al and the Hornets defense held both to single-digit scoring, as the two combined for just 12 points on Monday night at the Verizon Center.

Home base for the scoring battle was set in the backcourt, and impressively enough, both Roberts and Henderson out scored All-Star starter, John Wall and sharpshooter Bradley Beal 35-34. Charlotte also held Washington to just 40.7 percent shooting from the field.

“I still think they’re one of the best [backcourts] out there,” Al said of the Wizards. “But at the end of the day, we’re ready to play. We’re coming to play every night and regardless of who we’re playing against we’re going to be ready to give it our all, 100 percent. I think that’s what our backcourt did tonight.”

With Roberts and Henderson handling the scoring duties early, Big Al tallied just six points in the first half, but Charlotte took a 53-51 lead into halftime anyway. In the second half, No. 25 was much more aggressive in the second half and scored six points each in the third and fourth frame. Afterward, he credited his teammates for helping him pick his spots and score when the defense was taking away his pet plays.

“It’s getting better. I’m understanding how to just get the ball with our play calls. Teams are doing a great job of taking my plays away, but my teammates are doing a great job finding me in open spots for me to get easy shots.”

Charlotte Hornets v Washington Wizards

As Al got going offensively in the second half, so to did the Hornets. They opened the third quarter on a 10-0 run to extend their lead to 12, it’s highest point of the evening. No. 25 kicked off that run with a layup less than a minute into the second half, then helped to finish it a few minutes later with a turnaround hook shot to put Charlotte up 10. He added a jumper with under five minutes to go to push the lead back to 12.

Big Al and Henderson combined for 11 of the 17 Hornets points in that third frame and afterward Charlotte head coach Steve Clifford identified those two as primary players who will have to carry the torch as the Hornets search for scoring with Walker out.

“We have a couple of guys who are going to have to score every night,” Charlotte coach Steve Clifford said. “Al’s going to have to score, I believe Gerald will score every night, and then I think it’ll be different guys different nights.”

Though the Hornets were able to push their lead in the third, they closed it cold, and a 8-0 Wizards run to end the frame had Washington back within four at the start of the fourth. But those team-wide contributions carried Charlotte in the early stages of the fourth. Gary Neal drained two huge threes and Roberts knocked down a big jumper after the Wizards had brought the deficit down to two points.

Charlotte Hornets v Washington Wizards

Then, when Al returned, he took over the load, knocking down back-to-back shots, including a 19-footer from the top of the key to push the lead back to six with 3:29 remaining. He added a jumper with 1:19 to go to push the lead to eight and Henderson and Roberts closed the deal by knocking down their respective free throws to keep the contest a two-possession game and eventually put it out of reach. But afterward, No. 25 credited the team’s defense with getting the stops necessary to keep them in front for nearly the entire night.

“The main thing is rebounding and defense. We’re doing a great job on that end. Playing against a great offensive team, we got stops.”

The committee effort from the Hornets was fantastic on both ends and earned them a road win against the No. 3 team in the East. Charlotte has been playing its best basketball of late, leaving many stunned given the absences of The Postman and Kemba. But Al can’t be counted among the surprised onlookers. He believes the Hornets have grown tremendously in recent weeks, coming together as a more cohesive unit, which has allowed them to succeed, particularly on the defensive end where communication is crucial.

“We’re able to get on each other without taking it personal,” he said. “Guys are going to miss shots all night. That’s ok. But when we make a mistake on defense, we have to trust each other to get on each other and move on from it. I think that’s why things are clicking.”

Big Al’s return has also been a big reason the Hornets are operating at a high level. Since his return, No. 25 is averaging 14.3 points, 8.7 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per, helping the Buzz to a 5-2 record. And in three games since assuming his spot as starting center for the Jan. 28 matchup with the San Antonio Spurs, the Hornets are 2-1 with Al averaging 16.3 points and 11.7 rebounds per contest in that span.

NEXT UP

Charlotte (21-27) will be idle on Tuesday and Wednesday before returning home for a rematch with Washington (31-18) at Time Warner Cable Arena on Thursday night.

While the Hornets will be well-rested, the Wizards will becoming to town on the tail end of a back-to-back after facing the best team in the East, the Hawks (40-9), on Wednesday in Atlanta. But Al and his teammates know they can’t take the Wizards for granted, regardless of circumstance.

“We know they’re a great team. They’re loaded with a great bench,” he said. “We knew how well we have to play.”

Tipoff of Thursday’s game is scheduled for 7 p.m. ET. and it can be seen on SportSouth.

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