Charlotte, N.C. • At their best, the Jazz were defined by Paul Millsap last season.
The 2011-12 campaign already belongs to Al Jefferson.
Jazz-Bobcats box score: http://bit.ly/wg5jlQ
Nearly 20 months after joining Utah, Big Al is playing his best all-around basketball since putting on a Jazz uniform.
He scored a game-high 31 points, grabbed a co-game high nine rebounds and dished out a co-team high five assists Wednesday during Utah’s 99-93 win against the Charlotte Bobcats at Time Warner Cable Arena.
It was the second-consecutive contest the eight-year veteran has topped his team in all three key statistical categories. And with Utah (19-19) hitting .500 for the first time since Feb. 19, the Jazz did more than move to 2-1 on their five-game road trip and win their fourth contest in five attempts. Utah continued to remain near the edge of the Western Conference playoff picture, picking up its second consecutive victory as it prepares for a back-to-back road test against Philadelphia and Chicago — two of the Eastern Conference’s elite teams.
“When it comes down to winning games and learning how to win, we’re doing it right now,” Jefferson said. “We’ve just got to keep it up, man. We’ve got two tough games coming up. … I believe in my heart that if we continue to play like we played the last two games, we’re going to win ’em.”
Much like a road victory against a poor Cleveland team Monday, the Jazz’s win against the Bobcats — 5-32 and the NBA’s worst club, record-wise — was far from perfect. Utah allowed Charlotte to hang close for the first two quarters, and the Bobcats outscored the Jazz 29-19 in the final period while cutting a 20-point lead to 92-83 with 3 minutes, 49 seconds to go.
But Jefferson closed it out, driving Charlotte center Bismack Biyombo — a 19-year-old from the Congo — mad in the process. One night after Biyombo appeared to take a major step forward in his evolution with a 10-point, 15-rebound, seven-block outing against Dwight Howard in the Bobcats’ surprising home win Tuesday, the raw rookie was publicly embarrassed by Big Al.
Jefferson pulled out every offensive move in his arsenal and used them at will, alternately blowing by, shooting over and running through Biyombo. The Jazz center stood up for the No. 7 overall pick of the 2011 NBA Draft, saying he shows promise and will only improve over time. But then Jefferson acknowledged what was obvious from jumpball: The project couldn’t hang with the proven.
“He didn’t know about [my] ball fake,” Jefferson said. “That’s what it was. It was working for me [Wednesday] and I just took my time on the offensive end. Jumpshots was going in, jump hook was going in. … Everything was just flowing for me.”
Charlotte outshot Utah from the field (47.1 percent to 44.8) and the Bobcats took 13 more foul shots (37 to 24). But the Jazz followed Jefferson’s lead inside. Utah outscored Charlotte 54-36 in the paint, won the rebound battle 43-34, and the Jazz picked up 35 second-chance points to the Bobcats’ 14.
Hard work. Extra hustle. Another win. Back to even, with 28 games to go during a lockout-shortened season.
“It really is important for us,” Utah coach Tyrone Corbin said. “We talked about taking care of your business on the road. I don’t care who we’re playing, we’ve got to play better.”
Up just 48-47 with 26 seconds left in the first half, a fallaway Devin Harris 3-pointer gave the Jazz a 51-47 halftime lead. Utah then used a 23-5 run to silence Charlotte and head to Philadelphia with a feeling it has been searching for all year: momentum away from Salt Lake City.
“We’re better. I’m reluctant to tell you that’s it’s looking great, because I think we still got work to do,” Jazz guard Raja Bell said. “With the talent we have in this room and the ability of some of the guys in this room, we’re not where we should be. But we’re in a decent spot right now and we’re getting better and that’s good. We’re not regressing.”
Check The Tribune’s Jazz Notes blog at sltrib.com/Blogs/jazznotes for exclusive news, interviews, video and analysis.
Jazz 99, Bobcats 93
R IN SHORT • Jazz climb back to .500 and move to 2-1 on their five-game road trip.
KEY STAT • Utah outscores Charlotte 35-14 in second-chance points and 54-36 in the paint.
KEY MOMENT • The Jazz open the third quarter with a 20-5 run.
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