Jefferson driving Bobcats' playoff push

Jefferson driving Bobcats' playoff push
April 11, 2014, 11:45 pm
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(AP Photo)

BOSTON — It was the spring of 2007 and the Boston Celtics had just completed one of the worst seasons in franchise history.

Al Jefferson was feeling pretty good about himself, his game and maybe most important, his future with the Boston Celtics.

"I had a great year that year," said Jefferson, now with the Charlotte Bobcats who lost 106-103 to Boston on Friday. "Wasn't a great team year as far as a team, we didn't do well. But, that was kind of like my breakout year."

And he was eager to get back on the floor.

So after a few weeks in Jackson, Miss., Jefferson was ready to get back to Boston and start working towards the next season.

On the way to the airport, his phone rang.

It was Danny Ainge, Boston's president of basketball operations.

"He was like, 'what are you doing?'" Jefferson recalled. "And I was like, 'headed to the airport ... to Boston.' And he was like, 'Uhh ... just go ahead and stay in Mississippi."

Ainge told Jefferson a deal sending him to Minnesota for Kevin Garnett was probably going to happen in the coming days.

"My heart dropped," Jefferson recalled. "But you know, once I thought about it, I was like, it was an honor, number one to be traded for one of the best players at that time. A Hall of Famer. And, I understand. Danny had to do what was best for the team. And at that time, in my opinion, that was best for the team. I got a good contract going to Minnesota and they got a championship, so I think, everybody won."

The trade was made by Boston to elevate the franchise with the addition of a proven veteran.

Now, seven years later, it is Jefferson in that role with the Bobcats who are going to the playoffs for only the second time in their 10-year history.

Jefferson, who signed a three-year, $40.5 million deal with the Bobcats last summer, admits he didn't anticipate the Bobcats (40-38) would be a sixth seed in the playoffs this quickly.

"If you ask me did I say when I signed that we would be where we are now, no I didn't say that," Jefferson said. But I knew if we buy into coach's system and believe in ourselves, when all is said and done we were going to make some major ... improvement. And, here we are."

And there are a plethora of factors that have contributed to Charlotte's success this season. But few if any, have been more important than Jefferson's play and presence.

"Man, when you're with him everyday? You get a chance to see what he does on a daily basis," said former UConn star Kemba Walker. "It's kind of surreal. Some of the shots he makes, it's unbelievable. And he does it all the time. So it's not like it's a mistake."

On Friday, Jefferson had 14 points of his game-high 32 points in the first quarter on 7-for-10 shooting.

Charlotte led most of the first half, but the Celtics managed to tie the game at 51 following a floater in the lane by Jared Sullinger.

So what did the Bobcats do on the next possession?

They went to Big Al who once again delivered a big basket.

It was the kind of play that Jefferson has been making all season; the kind you expect from your leader.

"He's such a great leader for this team," Walker said. "I'm excited and everybody on this team is excited to have him around.

Walker added, "He's really embracing his leadership role. We follow his lead, all of us. He's been through a lot and he knows what it takes to win. He's been nothing but great for us."

Jefferson attributes a large part of his success as a leader simply being around the league for a decade, along with having good leaders to learn from.

"Just understanding at this time in my career, understanding what it takes to win," Jefferson said. "I knew when they brought me here, not only for me to put up points and rebound and play defense, they also brought me here to be a leader; a vocal leader, something I never did. I knew that was something I had to do, especially with this team."

And while Jefferson relishes the opportunity to lead this team - his team - into the playoffs, he is well aware that the journey is only starting if he is to achieve his goal which is to lead the Bobcats deep into the postseason and not just show up to be knocked out in the first round.

"We're doing great. I'm happy," Jefferson said. "But I feel this is only the beginning. You go back to Oklahoma City when they were not a playoff team, then made the eighth seed, lost in their first round. The next year, went to the Western Conference finals and the following year they went to the Finals. They just kept going until they became a team that everybody had to respect. That's where we at right now; we're at the beginning stage. I'm proud of what we've done so far. But I believe in my heart, we're going to accomplish so much more."