Jefferson Shoots Down the Young Guns
Thaddeus Young calls him "a true bucket-getter," which is a fancy way of putting it. Al Jefferson has been getting buckets around the basket for 14 NBA seasons now, and nobody has yet to come up with a way to keep him from conducting his business out of the low post. That includes a 23-year-old center who sometimes defies the laws of nature as it's supposed to apply to 7-footers.
Philadelphia's Joel Embiid, a rising star who's averaging 23.6 points, 11 rebounds and a couple of blocked shots per game, needed just 3 minutes, 10 seconds to pick up two fouls from Myles Turner in the Pacers' win over the Sixers on Saturday. Turner's replacement, Domantas Sabonis, didn't fare much better, managing just a couple of free throws the rest of the quarter on a foul drawn from Jerryd Bayless.
And then, what do you know, Al Jefferson got the call late in the period. The 33-year-old gravity-challenged vet who's usually in the playing rotation only when Turner or Sabonis are unavailable would be taking on Embiid, the taller, more agile and younger center. If ever there seemed a mismatch made in heaven (for Philadelphia), this was it.
But then, what do you know, Jefferson took the kid to school. After giving up a 22-foot shot to Embiid late in the first quarter, he opened the second with a 10-foot turnaround shot over Embiid. After Embiid missed a 3-pointer, Jefferson scored on a postup move, drew a foul from Justin Anderson, and completed the old-fashioned three-point play. After Embiid missed twice more, and then committed a turnover, Jefferson put him in the spin cycle by twirling around him for a layup.
Jefferson also forced a turnover on Embiid early in the fourth quarter and added a dunk on a mid-court pass from Lance Stephenson to complete his evening's work. Jefferson finished the game with a plus/minus rating of 14, meaning the Pacers outscored Philadelphia by a point a minute while he was in the game, and he wasn't a mere bystander to those runs.
Embiid finished with 24 points and 10 rebounds, a typical game for him. Jefferson, who played 13 ½ minutes, finished with nine points on 4-of-6 shooting, which qualifies as typical for him when he gets enough minutes. He's sat out more games (29) than he's played (25) this season but is one of the Pacers' most productive players. When stats are figured on a per-minute basis, he ranks second in scoring behind Victor Oladipo, second in rebounding behind Sabonis (and first in defensive rebounds) and second in blocked shots behind Turner among those with significant playing time.
That's why Jefferson's teammates weren't at all surprised by the tutorial they witnessed on Saturday. Jefferson is a living example of David Mamet's quote, "old age and treachery will always beat youth and exuberance." Although Jefferson, who gives as well as he takes in the locker room, doesn't come across to his teammates as nearing his expiration date.
"Al ain't old, he's 33 years young," Oladipo said. "Al's been a scorer his whole life. He can score the ball on anybody. Al's picked us up in a lot of games and today was one of them. He's one of a kind. Not a lot of people can do what he does."
Jefferson's role in Saturday's game wasn't the result of Turner's early foul trouble, although that no doubt increased his minutes. Nate McMillan told Jefferson before the pre-game meeting he would be using him to "lean on" Embiid.
"We were going to use our three centers on him, and we did," McMillan said. "We needed all three of our bigs to play him. They gave him different looks and did a solid job."
Jefferson admits to being impressed with Embiid and the other young centers in the NBA who keep moving farther and farther from the basket. When Jefferson came into the NBA out of high school in 2004, big men knew their place: as close to the basket as possible. Most offenses ran through them, and 3-point shots were rarely a first option.
Now? Bombs away, everybody.
"Big fella, man," Jefferson said, referring to Embiid. "I've been in the league a long time and never seen a 7-1 guy who can dribble the ball the way he can, hit the three and do all the things he can do. And he's a great defender. I don't know what's in the food these kids eat these days."
"I think a lot of the young guys have never seen some of the things I do," Jefferson said. "Amir Johnson (the Sixers' 13-season center) was telling me at halftime he had told (Embiid), 'Just stay down on his ball fake.' That's easier said than done. I don't think guys are used to the footwork I have, being able to get my shot off. I'm a dinosaur in this league."
A dinosaur with footwork, though, and a soft shooting touch. Jefferson appreciates every opportunity to prove he's nowhere near NBA extinction, regardless of who gives up his buckets.
Does he enjoy showing the young guns a thing or two?
"Oh, yeah, man," he said. "It could be one of the old guns. I'll be happy to have any kind of game. It's just all about basketball and competing."
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Mark Montieth's book, "Reborn: The Pacers and the Return of Pro Basketball to Indianapolis," covers the formation and early seasons of the franchise. It is available at retail outlets throughout Indiana and online at sources such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
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