These Jeffersons left signatures
The Celtics had high hopes for Al Jeffersons second year, but injuries sidelined the big man for a large portion of the season. (Globe Staff Photo / Matthew J. Lee)
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- You can almost summarize the current state of the Celtics and the Nets with one surname -- Jefferson.
In the case of the Celtics, it was all about promise unfulfilled this season for Al Jefferson, whose individual year was every bit as discouraging and disappointing as that of his team. Amazingly, the Celtics will play an 82-game season without ever winning three in a row, and Al Jefferson will have missed nearly 30 percent of it.
Then there's Richard Jefferson, who last night suited up for the 77th time, ever mindful of how injuries can sap a player and a season, but heading, full steam, healthy and optimistic, into the postseason.
At this time last year, Al Jefferson was a Celtics cult figure, a persona that extended into the playoffs, when he played surprisingly well against Indiana considering that the year before he had been posting up 6-foot-2-inch guys in Mississippi. Al Jefferson was the symbol of hope for Celtics fans. The Celtics, of course, amped it up on their own, with coach Doc Rivers saying he expected big things from Big Al in Year 2 and the team choosing to put him on the cover of its media guide.
While Big Al was raising eyebrows everywhere last spring, Richard Jefferson was merely trying to recover from a season unlike any other he had encountered. Richard Jefferson ruptured a ligament in his left wrist in January and underwent surgery. He missed a total of 49 games in a chaotic Nets season in which Jason Kidd missed 16 games, Vince Carter arrived in mid-December, and Jersey barely made the postseason.
''It was the first time I had been injured, so it was tough," Richard Jefferson said before last night's 95-93 win over the Celtics, in which he had 15 points. ''It happens to a lot of people, but it had never happened to me. If you look at the year before, I had played in every game [he missed only five games in his first two years] and I wasn't used to being hurt. This year has been more of a normal situation."
Normal for Richard Jefferson and the Nets, that is. They have been to the playoffs in each of his four seasons, although they needed some luck last season to sneak in at No. 8, where they were quickly broomed by Miami. Richard Jefferson managed to return for the postseason series against the Heat, but it simply wasn't there for him or the team.
''We started out a little rocky, getting used to playing with each other, our new roles, but then we hit our stride and things have worked out for us," he said. ''I think that says something about the group of people we have, persevering through all the tough times."
Jefferson and the Nets went on a 14-game winning streak from March 12 to April 6 to put an end to any semblance of competition for first place in the Atlantic Division. New Jersey has clinched home-court advantage for the first round. The Nets have won 25 of their last 30 at home and can win 50 games for the second time in the NBA history of the franchise. (As an ABA team, the Nets won 50 or more games three times.)
Al Jefferson, meanwhile, has all but been forgotten, consigned to Rivers's ''officially shut down" list for the rest of the season. Big Al's season averages of 7.9 points and 5.1 rebounds in 18 minutes a game are nowhere near what the Celtics had hoped for or expected, although they are better than his rookie season.
His is a cautionary tale, one of perhaps unrealistic expectations coupled with an unfortunate tendency to get hurt. He will end up missing 23 games this season (or six more than Paul Pierce has missed in his career) because of his inability to fully recover from a bad ankle sprain/bruise. There also was an ankle sprain in training camp that set him back from the outset.
The Celtics chose not to bring back Antoine Walker, in part because they didn't want to take time away from Big Al. It made perfect sense, because the expectations were such that Al Jefferson would start and show dramatic improvement from a promising rookie season.
But the injury in camp set him back. And when he finally appeared to be rounding into form, he sprained the ankle again. Now, instead of a promising future, we hear that Jefferson doesn't take good enough care of himself and doesn't have the experience to fight through injuries.
We'll next see Big Al in Las Vegas during the summer league. We'll next see Richard Jefferson next weekend, starting for the Nets, in the first round of the playoffs. He made it back and so did his team. Al Jefferson and the Celtics can only hope for similar results next season.