CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Al Jefferson was the focal point of the Charlotte Hornets’ offense when they faced the Miami Heat in the playoffs two years ago.
That role has since changed.
Jefferson now comes off the bench and plays fewer minutes, but that doesn’t mean the Hornets won’t be relying on “Big Al” in the postseason.
“He’s still a difference maker,” coach Steve Clifford said.
Jefferson isn’t fazed at all by what some players might consider a demotion, albeit one that was brought on by a midseason knee injury.
In fact, the 31-year-old Jefferson has grown to accept his new role as the Hornets prepare for a first-round playoff rematch with Miami, which swept Charlotte two years ago.
Despite a stellar 12-year NBA career, Jefferson has never made it out of the first round.
He’s eager for that to change — even if it means taking a back seat.
“It’s really not been a hard thing to do for me,” Jefferson said. “This team is having great success and I’m at the point of my career where I want to do whatever it takes to get to the next round.”
Clifford said bringing a low-post presence like Jefferson off the bench gives his team a different dimension, making it more difficult for teams to prepare for the Hornets.
“The teams that are hard to play against have more areas that they can play offense,” Clifford said. “Without him we are a ball movement, pick and roll, catch-and-shoot, dribble-handoff team. That’s good. But with him you have a post-up option that not many guys can guard one-on-one. It adds another dimension.”
Jefferson missed nearly two months of action when he tore the meniscus in his right knee in late December. Before that, he missed six games with a strained calf and five more while serving a league-imposed drug suspension.
When he finally returned, the Hornets were a team that was finally starting to round into form, having won five of their previous six games with Cody Zeller at center.
Clifford didn’t want to rush Jefferson back, so he slowly worked him into the mix coming off the bench, limiting him to about 22 minutes per game.
He’s stuck with that plan ever since, only once playing Jefferson more than 30 minutes in a game in the second half of the season.
Clifford said it wouldn’t be fair to ask Jefferson to play his typical 32-plus minutes per game considering he’s still rounding into form following the surgery. However, he hinted that Jefferson could see more minutes in the postseason given his experience and ability to occupy Miami shot-blocker Hassan Whiteside.
That probably wouldn’t surprise Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, who said he expects Jefferson will be a “big key” in the upcoming series, which starts Sunday in Miami.
“We feel comfortable with our depth,” Spoelstra said. “Both sides will have different areas where you feel you have strengths and can compromise the other team.”
Kemba Walker said Jefferson, in the final year of his contract with the Hornets, has handled the role change like a professional.
“Starting your whole career and then having to come off the bench can be a pretty big adjustment,” Walker said. “But he’s adjusted really well and hasn’t complained. That shows true leadership and true sacrifice. That shows that you’re in for the team. And that is big-time for us.”
Jefferson is averaging 12 points and 6.4 rebounds this season, well below his career averages of 16.7 points and 8.9 rebounds per game.
But that’s OK with him — especially if it means making it out of the first round.
“I do whatever it takes to win,” Jefferson said. “You have to have team first. If you are more worried about yourself than the team, you may make the playoffs but you aren’t going to get far.”
AP Basketball Writer Tim Reynolds in Miami, Florida, contributed to this report.