MIAMI -- Arguably the biggest underdog in any series of these NBA playoffs, the Charlotte Bobcats knew they had to make the most of their shots in their first-round matchup against LeBron James and the two-time defending champion Miami Heat.
Those shots came midway through Sunday’s game.
But they certainly weren’t the variety the Bobcats had in mind.
Instead, Charlotte big man Al Jefferson needed two injections to numb the excruciating pain in his left foot just to get his team through a 99-88 Game 1 loss to the Heat. Jefferson made his first four shots and led the Bobcats to a surprisingly comfortable lead against the sluggish Heat before he planted his foot on a cut to the basket late in the first quarter, heard something pop and felt sharp pain shoot through his leg.
Jefferson took the first of two injections immediately after he was helped to the locker room once he left the game late in the first quarter. He came back to play nine minutes in the second quarter and received another shot to kill the pain at halftime.
By the time the game was over, Jefferson had stumbled his way through a contribution of 18 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks in 35 minutes. Then, the 6-foot-11, 290-pound franchise cornerstone limped his way out of AmericanAirlines Arena in a walking boot that was a bit too small for his size-18 foot.
Jefferson said he has been through enough injuries and recoveries in his 10-year career to accept that there are some things he’s had “to suck it up and play through” and some other times when he’s had to “just be a man and say you can’t go.”
Considering how Charlotte finished 20-9 since the All-Star break just to get to the playoffs for the first time since 2010, this qualifies as more of a case of the former than the latter for Jefferson.
“I really don’t know all the details, but it’s just something I’ve got to play through,” Jefferson said. “I don’t like needles, so it was very uncomfortable for me. I got one right when it happened. From a scale from 1-to-10, it [the pain] was probably a 6. Then I got one at halftime and it felt a lot better in the third quarter. We’re just hoping to keep it at that level going into Wednesday.”
Even with the Heat entering the postseason as vulnerable as they’ve ever been since James and Chris Bosh arrived to join Dwyane Wade in 2010, the Bobcats needed a near-perfect brand of basketball with uncharacteristically strong balance just to extend this best-of-seven series to the "if necessary" stage.
Now, they’re a team with a star player who barely has a leg on which to stand.
Jefferson will be treated through the start of Game 2 on Wednesday night for what the team believes is a case of plantar fasciitis. Between now and then, coach Steve Clifford’s job is to convince his young and feisty team that its chances to stun the Heat haven’t been downgraded from improbable to impossible.
That process started the moment he adjusted the microphone to start his postgame news conference after Charlotte dropped its 17th consecutive game to the Heat, a streak that coincides with the arrivals of James and Bosh to Miami to join Wade.
“We’re a totally different team,” Clifford said of the prospects of dealing with an ailing or diminished Jefferson for what’s left of this series. “I think if any team loses their best offensive player, they become a different team. I don’t know if there is one team in the league that is more dependent on one guy than how we are dependent on him.”
A strong case can be made that not even James has that level of burden to carry for the Heat. During a game in which James was able to pick his spots and ease his way into a 27-point performance, Wade was there to provide 23 points on 10-of-16 shooting along with five assists. The Heat went deeper than expected into a rotation that was never truly established this season. Miami used 10 players against Charlotte and got a surprising boost from seldom-used James Jones, who scored 12 off the bench.
With Jefferson barely able to change ends of the court at times during the game, the Heat used a 23-8 run that started with a 3-pointer from James at the end of the third quarter to open a 20-point lead. The Heat didn’t necessarily play well, especially early.
James and Bosh were playing for the first time in a week after sitting out the final two games of the regular season. And it was only the second time Wade shared the court with those two in nearly a month after dealing with a nagging hamstring injury that forced him out of nine consecutive games before he returned for the final three games of the season.
“I think we were all gassed in the opening minute; it felt like we hadn’t played in two weeks,” James said. “It felt like we hadn’t been out there in a long time, but the playoffs are back. We didn’t have any rhythm when we started the game, but we got it back.”
This first-round series was likely never going to be much more than a tuneup for the Heat as they begin their quest to become the first team since the Shaq-and-Kobe Lakers to win three straight titles. For a half Sunday, the Bobcats proved capable of pushing the Heat for a few days.
They were on the verge of giving themselves a shot against the Heat in Game 1.
Then, amid the promise and progress, their best player took two injections to cope with the pain.
The Heat endured with balance against an underdog that will struggle this series to regain its footing.