Michael Jordan's Bobcats enter the post-NBA All-Star break with their playoff hopes largely riding on the old-school game of big man Al Jefferson.
Jefferson and his back-to-the-basket style of play has helped the Bobcats win more games than they did all of last season and position themselves for their first postseason appearance since 2010. Charlotte (23-30) is currently the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference, one-half game ahead of the Detroit Pistons. The two teams will play Tuesday and Wednesday.
Jefferson is in the midst of one of the most productive seasons of his 10-year career, averaging 20.1 points and 10.5 rebounds per game.
And he's doing it his way.
Unlike the vast majority of big men in the league today who are focused on their perimeter game and running the floor, the 6-foot-10, 289-pound Jefferson camps out in the low post, using his muscle, agility, size and basketball knowledge to methodically wear down opponents.
"I blame Dirk Nowitzki," Jefferson said with a laugh when asked about the lack of NBA low-post scorers.
Maybe he should be thanking him.
Opponents say Jefferson's unique style makes him difficult to defend because it's not something you see on a nightly basis.
"He has a great jump hook and great pump fakes to get you off your feet," said Spurs forward Boris Diaw. "When you play Al you have to change your reflexes and the way you defend. It's not easy."
Diaw should know.
Earlier this month Jefferson scored 10 quick points against Tim Duncan in the first 5 minutes, prompting Spurs coach Gregg Popovich to call timeout and put Diaw on Jefferson because he was less apt to fall for pump fakes.
"His pump fakes are maybe the best in the league. They're ridiculous," Popovich said.
"Big Al" joined the league as the 15th overall pick by the Boston Celtics in 2004 out of tiny Prentiss (Miss.) High School.
"When I first arrived I remember teams having a big four and a big five, kind of like the David Robinson-Tim Duncan era. Slowly the league started changing," Jefferson said.
Jefferson never did.
He learned his trade back in the ninth grade playing against childhood friend Charles Hicks, who was a little taller and a year older. They'd battle relentlessly in the low post on the outside park courts of Prentiss like two tigers fighting over territory.
Basketball was Jefferson's primary concern back then.
Known as a class clown, Jefferson's grades were average at best. But he knew in the seventh grade — when he was already 6-foot-3 and regularly asked by teachers to hang posters in the classroom — he wanted to play in the NBA.
Jefferson helped Prentiss to a state title and skipped college, going straight to the NBA where he began perfecting his three go-to moves — a jump hook, a counter move which is a drop step back to baseline, and the up-and-under — working with Celtics assistant coach Dave Wood.
"The funny thing is I can never teach a kid all of the stuff that I do. I just teach them the three basic moves," said Jefferson before a quick laugh. "Then I just make up the rest."
The 29-year-old Jefferson signed a three-year, $40.5 million contract with the Bobcats this past offseason.
He started the season slow following a preseason ankle injury, but has since recovered and has been on a tear since Jan. 11 averaging 26 points and 11.4 rebounds during that 16-game span.
"There is isn't anybody in the league who is playing better right now," Charlotte coach Steve Clifford said.
Despite his recent hot streak and the remarkably consistent career, Jefferson has never played in an All-Star game.
He used to let it bother him, but doesn't anymore.
"I've never been the type of player kids want to go see at the park," Jefferson said. "I've never been that above-the-rim type of player like LeBron (James) and Blake Griffin."
The self-described country boy who still loves his soul food — catfish and fried chicken are his favorites — said he's happy with being reliable rather than flashy.
That has a little something to do with the way he was raised.
Jefferson's father drowned in a work accident when he was 6 months old. He was raised by his mother and two grandmothers and lived a "simple life" in the small, rural town of 1,500.
For Jefferson, it's way too late to change his style of play now.
Not that he would anyway, especially with the niche he's carved out in today's NBA.
"I think the reason I have been around so long playing at a higher level — and the reason I can be around for a while longer — is because I have a unique game," Jefferson said. "I have a game that a lot of people don't have anymore."