CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Al Jefferson said he feels like he's playing the best basketball of his 10-year NBA career.
It's tough to argue that point.
The 29-year-old Jefferson had a great run five years ago with Minnesota, but that came when the Timberwolves were irrelevant. This year Jefferson is spearheading the Bobcats' charge to the playoffs and seemingly getting stronger and more confident with each passing game.
"My confidence is up, especially on the defensive end, and I'm just playing well," Jefferson said. "In Minnesota we were 20 games under .500 and we were getting ready for the draft. Right now we're in a dogfight. I mean it's a dogfight man, and it just means a lot more to me."
Jefferson had 33 points and 10 rebounds on Friday night, helping the Bobcats beat the New Orleans Pelicans 90-87 for their third straight victory since the All-Star break.
Jefferson has scored 29 points or more in eight of his last 11 games and at least 20 points in 17 of the last 19.
Bobcats coach Steve Clifford said he's never coached a player who has been on a roll quite like the one Jefferson is on now.
"It's unbelievable," Clifford said. "I can't imagine many guys in the league are playing better than him right now."
And Jefferson's production might only increase in the coming months.
The Bobcats traded for Gary Neal and Luke Ridnour on Thursday, looking to bolster their 3-point shooting.
Jefferson said he's excited about the trade. He believes Neal will bring the Bobcats an outside presence, one that may force teams to think twice about how often they double team him in the low post.
"Playing against (Neal) in Utah the last few years, I didn't like him -- I didn't like him at all," Jefferson said. "He didn't miss a lot of shots."
The Bobcats, currently the seventh seed in the East after Atlanta lost to Detroit, overcame some shoddy free throw shooting Friday night in the final minute to win for the seventh time in the last 10 games.
Charlotte had missed four of six free throws in the final minute before Kemba Walker knocked down four foul shots in the final 9 seconds to put the Bobcats up by three. The Pelicans had a chance to send the game to overtime, but Josh McRoberts stripped Brian Roberts of the ball at midcourt and time expired.
Rookie Cody Zeller continues to steadily improve, chipping in with a career-high 13 points for the Bobcats.
"Defensively I'm starting to see plays before they happen and on offense I'm playing with more confidence," said Zeller, the fourth overall pick in the 2013 draft.
Roberts had 20 points and Anthony Davis added 18 points and 13 rebounds for the Pelicans (23-31), who have lost four of their last five games.
The Bobcats wasted no time exploiting the matchup of Jefferson on Alexis Ajinca, repeatedly dumping the ball in the low post. Jefferson had 14 points in the first quarter. The Pelicans also tried Greg Stiemsma and later Anthony Davis on Jefferson, but nobody had much success stopping him.
The trio combined for 13 fouls.
Charlotte was 25 of 36 from the foul line; the Pelicans attempted just 11 free throws.
"I don't like wearing him down," Pelicans coach Monty Williams said of the decision not to put Davis on Jefferson to start the game. "So, to put him on Al from the jump, I think it wears him out. We did that with Carmelo (Anthony) the last game and he did a good job and he did a good job on Al tonight.
"And Al missed some shots. They got 36 free throws and we got 11. So you figure that out."
The Bobcats' defense, which came in ranked fifth in the league in points allowed, limited the Pelicans to a season-low 32 points in the first half to take an 11-point lead at the break.
"We couldn't put the ball in the bucket in the first half," Davis said. "We played great defensively, but it's tough to get out of that hole."
There was a comical moment in the fourth quarter after an errant pass. A fan retrieved the ball and fired it back to the official on the court just as Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was getting up from his seat on the bench. The ball hit Kidd-Gilchrist in the back of the head, causing him to flinch.
Clifford said newly acquired Neal and Ridnour will not play until next week as the NBA has yet to approve the deal. Both arrived in Charlotte on Friday and watched the game from behind the team bench. ... Gerald Henderson is one of only eight guards in the NBA that has started every game this season for his team.
Copyright by STATS LLC and The Associated Press
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