The Charlotte Bobcats had a successful Western Conference road trip – winning three of four against the Nuggets, Lakers and Warriors – before coming home and falling just short against San Antonio, losing 104-100 on Feb. 8.

At 22-29, the Bobcats are far from a perfect team, but they are – entering play Feb. 11 – a playoff team in the East.

“I like where we’re at,” Bobcats head coach Steve Clifford said. “We had hit a stretch around Christmas where we kind of lost our defensive mentality, and we had a couple injuries on the wings, which affected us. Since we’ve gotten Michael Kidd-Gilchrist back and kind of solidified our defense again, we’re playing with a lot more balance.”

The Bobcats rank fourth in the NBA in scoring defense – they’re allowing just 97.1 points per game – but they’re 27th in scoring offense (94.5). Al Jefferson, however, has been a beast lately; he’s scored 30+ points in four of his last six games, including a 40-point outburst in a 110-100 win over the Lakers on Jan. 31.

“Basketball, as you guys know, is a game that starts at the top of your roster,” Clifford said. “Normally, whoever has the best player on any given night has a decided advantage. We have young players. We didn’t really have a go-to type guy, and (Jefferson has) given us that. He’s helped our offense tremendously.”

Jefferson, 29, was acquired in the offseason after spending three seasons in Utah. He also spent three years in Boston and Minnesota. This year, he is averaging 20 points, 10.6 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game.

Defensively, the Bobcats’ youth, quickness and competitiveness have been key.

“We have a lot way to go, but I feel like we’re making good strides,” Clifford said. “We’re just searching for the balance that the better teams have.”

Charlotte, which has 31 games remaining, will have to play well down the stretch to hold off Detroit (22-29) and New York (20-31) for the final playoff spot.

“I think that our approach will be (simple),” Clifford said. “If we play a game, win or lose, (we’ll) try to correct the things that we did poorly (and) build on the things that we did well so we keep making progress. Then we’ll have a chance.”

Clifford was asked about Cody Zeller, last year’s fourth overall pick. Neither Brandon Tierney nor Dana Jacobson thought Zeller would be a good NBA player, and so far, they’ve been right. Zeller is averaging just 5.1 points and 4.0 rebounds per game, as his minutes continue to wane.

So, what about Zeller tells us he’ll eventually be a good pro?

“Well, I think there’s a couple of things,” Clifford said. “First of all, I think he has the size and the natural basketball instinct to make a big jump both for next year and the (year after). There aren’t many 7-footers who have not just his speed, but his agility.

“And the second thing – and this is, to me, his greatest asset – are his instincts for the game, his decision-making, his ability to pass the ball. He’s like a lot of young players. He came out early. There is a huge jump between even the highest level of college basketball and the NBA in terms of physicality. He was a center in college, (and) he’s making the adjustment to playing more on the perimeter. He’s got to get stronger and be more comfortable playing as a face-up player.

“But I feel he’s made really good strides. I think he’s figuring out the NBA game more, and he’s figuring out how he has to play. So I’m a big fan of his.”


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