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Jefferson has helped Bobcats change losing culture

April 2, 2014

CHARLOTTE, North Carolina (AP) — Al Jefferson isn’t surprised the Charlotte Bobcats are on the brink of clinching an NBA playoff spot.

And the veteran center doesn’t think this Charlotte team is a one-year wonder.

“We’ve got a long way to go, but we can be one of the elite teams in the East,” Jefferson said.

When he signed a three-year, $40.5 million free agent contract last July he insisted he wasn’t coming to Charlotte just to collect a paycheck. He wanted to help change what had become a losing culture.

So far, so good.

The Bobcats have the seventh-best record in the Eastern Conference at 36-38. They’re 4½ games ahead of the ninth-place New York Knicks and can wrap up their first playoff berth since 2010 by winning four of their final eight games.

Jefferson has been an integral part of the turnaround, averaging 21.5 points and 10.4 rebounds per game.

Charlotte also has benefited from the maturation of third-year point guard Kemba Walker and some unexpected contributions from unheralded role players Chris Douglas-Roberts and Anthony Tolliver.

The Bobcats are hardly a dominating force, but first-year coach Steve Clifford seems to have his team headed in the right direction.

“I thought this could happen for us if we worked for it,” Jefferson said. “I couldn’t tell you when I signed that we were going to be here in a playoff run, but I knew that if we locked into what coach wanted us to do and committed and dedicated ourselves to this team, that we were going to have a chance.”

Clifford has preached defense — and his players have listened.

Charlotte is allowing 97.5 points per game, the sixth-fewest in the NBA. That’s a dramatic improvement from the previous year, when the Bobcats allowed the second-most points in the league.

Clifford said the key now was for players to avoid complacency.

Clifford suggested before Monday’s win over Washington that his players were too busy focusing on what they’ve already done rather than what’s ahead.

“I feel a sense of achievement within our team that shouldn’t be there,” Clifford said on Monday. “I wouldn’t say there is complacency, but we have played with good effort all year and right now everyone is telling them what a good job they have done and their minds weren’t in the right place.”

He said that might have contributed to a loss to Orlando last week.

After Clifford’s talk with the players, the Bobcats responded with a 100-94 win over Washington, pulling within two games of the Wizards for the sixth seed in the East.

As much improvement as the Bobcats have shown under Clifford, Jefferson said they could have been well above .500 had they remained focused at all times.

What’s different about the Bobcats is the attitude.

The culture has changed dramatically from the past two seasons, when under Paul Silas and Mike Dunlap they finished a combined 28-120, by far the worst record in the league over that span.

Winning is no longer a nice surprise on any night. It’s become expected. Losses are greeted in the locker room with disdain rather than acceptance.

“They’re a pesky group, a good defensive team,” Wizards coach Randy Wittman said. “They’ve put themselves in a position to make some noise in the postseason.”

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