Hornets Win Two As Big Al Returns
Al Jefferson made his return from knee surgery this weekend, and the Charlotte Hornets kept right on rolling with the help of their star big man.
Big Al tallied six points and gobbled up five rebounds in 23 minutes of play in his first game back since Dec. 28. After the 98-95 win over the Milwaukee Bucks, the Professor came back and went off for 18 points and seven rebounds as the Hornets cruised to a 104-96 win over the Brooklyn Nets.
The All-Pro center was glad to get his feet back under him in a pair of wins, and he reported that the journey back from surgery is going well so far.
“It’s getting better every quarter,” Al said of his health. “Being healthy is a big key, but you also have to get in game shape. I have to get my rhythm back, get my touch back. It’s all coming along, I just have to continue to build off of it every game.”
BIG AL RETURNS
Big Al came off the bench behind Cody Zeller in his first game back on Friday against Milwaukee.
The 23-year-old has blossomed under fire with Big Al sidelined, and the two meshed well down low. Zeller scored a career-high 23 points off a brilliant 9-of-12 night from the floor and grabbed nine rebounds. He talked to reporters about Al’s influence as a mentor after the game.
“Big Al has been great, helping me through this whole process – giving me scouting reports on centers I hadn’t guarded before,” Zeller said. “I think that’s why it’s going to work so well. Me and Al, Marvin and Frank, we all just want what is best for the team.”
Kemba Walker led the way with 25 points and electrified the start of the contest, posting 13 points in the first quarter. Big Al checked in with six minutes left in the first. The Hornets were immediately graced by his presence, as he snagged a few quick rebounds and posted up Greg Monroe to draw a foul.
“A lot better than I could have expected,” head coach Steve Clifford said of Al’s return. “He hasn’t been able to do contact until three days ago. You can tell his knee’s a lot better than it’s been all year.”
Milwaukee took a 13-point lead during the third quarter, but the Hornets outscored the Bucks 28-17 in the final frame to escape with a narrow win. Charlotte held a 96-95 lead with 18 seconds left, but Nicolas Batum committed a costly turnover, which gave the Bucks a chance to take the lead.
Milwaukee guard Khris Middleton couldn’t hit the go-ahead mid-range jumper, and Walker swooped in to grab the rebound, forcing the Bucks to foul him. After Walker hit both free throws, the Bucks still had one last opportunity to send the game to overtime, but Middleton missed a three-point attempt as time expired.
Marvin Williams finished the game with 15 points, including a crucial bucket to give the Hornets a three-point cushion late in the fourth. Jeremy Lamb chipped in 14 off the bench too.
“Everybody made plays. Al made big plays. Jeremy Lin made big plays,” Walker said. “Everybody contributed to the win. We never let ourselves get out. They were playing well. We were down, but we stayed composed and made some big plays.”
The Buzz was without newcomer Courtney Lee, who didn’t make his debut until Sunday against the Nets. But four Hornets combined to hit nine three-pointers in the win. After the game, Big Al shared an observation that me made during his time out, and one that he experienced firsthand upon his return.
“This is not the same team of two years ago or last year when the ball had to go through me every time,” No. 25 said. “This is actually a lot better for me, to have shooters around me, playing for each other. The number of three-point shots we get up – that’s playoff basketball.”
THE POSTMAN DELIVERS IN BROOKLYN
Two nights later, the Hornets continued their fiery play as they won their fifth straight contest overall and their third consecutive game on the road.
It was a commanding win for the Hornets, who shot 50.6 percent from the field and hit 10 times from beyond the arc. The trio of Big Al, Walker and Batum powered a strong offensive night.
No. 25 almost touched 20 off the bench, while Batum nearly posted a triple double, with 16 points, eight assists and seven rebounds. Walker also continued his superb play with 28 points. It marked his sixth straight 20-point game.
“Kemba, he’s been doing what he’s been doing for a long time, and this is my third year of playing with him. And he’s one of the reasons why I signed with Charlotte because I knew that he was a rising superstar, and he’s just proving me right,” Big Al said. “It’s fun to play with. He’s the heart of this team. He’s our engine, and when he’s going, we all go.”
The Hornets were rolling behind Walker, and Big Al provided a turbo boost off the bench. No. 25 checked in at the 5:38 mark of the first quarter and hit three straight baskets late in the period to help his team exit the opening quarter with a 29-26 lead.
“My teammates did me a great job of getting me the ball in my sweet spot,” Al said. “I just do what I’ve been doing for years.”
Big Al just kept on working the block. He opened the second quarter with back-to-back baskets, making it 10 points in a span of less than four minutes. He pulled a defensive rebound down on the next possession, which led to a bucket from Lin on the other end, giving Charlotte a nine-point lead, 35-26.
The Hornets led by as much as 15 in that period. Dominant defense also helped the cause. During one stretch in the second quarter, the Nets were held without points for over five minutes of gameplay. But the Nets woke up late, shaving the lead back to seven, 55-48, before the break.
The Nets hung around for much of the third quarter until a couple of late buckets from No. 25 padded the lead. Big Al buried back-to-back jumpers in the final 30 seconds to give Charlotte a 16-point advantage—but Brook Lopez hit a prayer from 38 feet out at the buzzer to make it 86-73 going into the final frame.
Brooklyn built off the momentum of that buzzer beater. The Nets knocked it down to eight early in the quarter, when Big Al countered with an 18-footer to make it double digits once again. However, Brooklyn kept battling. The lead was down to six when Al scored again to make it an eight-point cushion with six minutes to go.
Al showed some dynamic scoring ability down low and shared with the media afterward that, now that his knee has been repaired, his game has opened up once again.
“It’s a big difference,” he said. “Prior to it, I was just going more with one leg out there. When I did go to that leg, I didn’t have lift or anything to bounce off. Now it’s there. If I can’t go one way, I can go the other. It’s like clockwork now.
The Nets came within four points with less than five minutes to go, but strong defense and clutch play by Kemba Walker brought home the win. After a Lopez dunk made it 95-91 with 4:42 to go, the Nets didn’t score for nearly four full minutes later. In that span, Kemba drove in for two, knocked down a three and fed Zeller on a dagger dunk to put the Hornets up 13, 104-91.
Big Al acknowledged that the Hornets did have its miscues on the night, but he was proud of the way his team kept pounding.
“This feels good. The team is playing well on both ends,” he said. “When we make a mistake, we make it but we get back and keep our heads up and keep playing hard. That’s the key. That’s the big difference.”
The Hornets will get some rest before the team’s fourth straight road game.
“Win or lose, that moment can only last for a short time, because you’ve got to get ready for the next game,” Al said Sunday night. “It’s a great feeling as of right now. We’re playing great, especially winning games on the road, but it’s a long road trip to go and we just have to build off of it.”
On Wednesday, Al and the boys will look to extend their win streak to six as they take on LeBron James and the top-seeded Cavaliers in Cleveland.
The Hornets walked away with a 107-96 victory the last time the team faced the Cavs. In 21 career showdowns with Cleveland, Big Al has posted double-digit scoring in all, but four of those contests.
The game is scheduled for a 7:00 p.m. eastern start time and will air on Fox Sports Southeast, as well as on the radio with WFNZ 610 AM.
- Walker scores 25 points, Hornets beat Bucks (AP, Feb. 19, 2016)
- Hornets at Bucks: Game Book (NBA, Feb. 19, 2016)
- Hornets’ Cody Zeller found comfort zone at center while Jefferson recovered (Charlotte Observer, Feb. 20, 2016)
- Kemba Walker creating a buzz with the Hornets (Today’s Fastbreak, Feb. 22, 2016)
- Hornets Postgame | Al Jefferson (Charlotte Hornets, Feb. 21, 2016)