INDIANAPOLIS -- "That's a great defensive team," Charlotte Bobcats center Al Jefferson assessed, "but we had them right where we wanted them."
Indeed they did, just the way they had the Miami Heat and Dallas Mavericks on the road early last week: Three great road opportunities against three strong opponents.
And three losses, this last one a 99-94 fall to the Indiana Pacers on Friday night, the team with the best record in the NBA at 20-3.
Jefferson (21 points, nine rebounds) was matched against Pacers center Roy Hibbert, one of the best rim-protectors in the NBA. But Jefferson was having his way in the left block, scoring with patience and cunning. With 20 or so seconds left, and the Bobcats trailing by two, Jefferson went into his move, curving with the ball to mid-lane to put up a jump-hook.
Then trouble struck.
"I had him like I had him all night. And then the ball slipped out of my hand," Jefferson lamented. "I had everything I wanted."
So the chance for a signature victory vanished. Pacers guard George Hill made his two free throws, Bobcats point guard Kemba Walker couldn't get a baseline drive to fall through, and the five-point final margin made this one look more routine for the Pacers than it really was.
The Bobcats (10-13) are scaring the elite in the Eastern Conference, just not closing the deal.
"It (stinks) to lose, but we can still take some good things from this," said shooting guard Gerald Henderson. "In the Warriors game, we came up with the plays down the stretch. We've still got to learn about finishing games -- that's what the great teams do."
The Bobcats gave themselves a chance Friday with some excellent defense on Pacers superstar Paul George, who shot 2-of-12 from the field and whose 12 points were less than half his average this season.
Jeff Taylor guarded George most of the time. Coach Steve Clifford was pleased with how precise Taylor was in his defense Friday.
"He's strong enough and quick enough to guard a guy like that. And he made it through the game mistake-free," Clifford said. "When a guy like that really hurts you, you've made five mistakes that make you change the way you have to guard him."
Unfortunately for the Bobcats, George isn't the Pacers' only offensive weapon. Hibbert finished with 18 points and 11 boards. Shooting guard Lance Stephenson totaled 20 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists.
So even with George's misses, the Pacers finished the night shooting 47 percent from the field, 4 percent better than the Bobcats have allowed for the season.
With Jefferson, they now have an answer in a rugged, half-court game like Friday. He's convinced it won't be long before they start winning their share of these.
"We've got to come out and play like that every night," Jefferson said. "Once we do that, it will all work out for us."
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