CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - Kemba Walker is relishing the idea of playing meaningful games in March again.
The Charlotte Bobcats point guard hasn't had that opportunity since leading Connecticut to a national championship three years ago.
The Bobcats were a combined 28-120 in Walker's first two NBA seasons, but things have changed for the better this year. Charlotte (35-37) has the seventh-best record in the Eastern Conference and appears destined for the postseason, sitting five games ahead of ninth-place New York with 10 remaining.
"It's exciting. It's different," Walker said Thursday as the Bobcats prepared for Friday night's visit to Orlando. "This is what I have been dreaming of my whole life. I've been waiting for this opportunity."
Charlotte's turnaround is in no small part due to the arrival of free agent center Al Jefferson and the improved play of Walker, who said he's beginning to realize how valuable he can be on the court even if he's not the team's leading scorer.
He's averaging 5.8 assists, but the difference has been in the last 13 games when Walker is averaging 7.5.
"If I'm not shooting the ball as well, I am still ending up with seven or eight assists," Walker said. "I feel like I'm still finding ways to impact the game. Learning how to play off Al has been big, and knowing where he likes the basketball. And the others guys are making shots."
So is Walker of late.
He scored 20 points and handed out 12 assists in Wednesday night's 116-111 overtime win against Brooklyn. He's scored 20 or more in three straight and five of the last six games and is averaging 17.8 points on the season, second on the team behind Jefferson (21.6).
Coach Steve Clifford said he's seen dramatic improvement in Walker's defense, as well as his pick-and-roll game on offense.
"He's making so many more plays," Clifford said. "He'll dribble the ball when he doesn't have a shot and goes down around the baseline like (Steve) Nash used to do. He puts so much pressure on the defense. He's making quicker decisions with the ball."
When the Bobcats have needed a big shot with the game on the line they mostly turn to the gritty, 6-foot point guard with boundless energy who can get to the basket or bury a buzzer-beating 3-pointer in your face.
When the game is on the line, Walker said he wants the ball.
That's where he feels most comfortable.
"He's got that New York City mentality," Bobcats forward Josh McRoberts said. "When the games are the biggest - that's when he really wants the ball. That's who we want to have the ball. When we get to the last possession we feel like we are going to win because Kemba is going to have the ball in his hands.
"Kemba and Al, they are our best players and they're going to be the guys we go to down the stretch. We know that. Other teams know that."
The Bobcats could be a tough out in the playoffs if they're able to move up in the standings and avoid a first-round showdown with Indiana or Miami. Like most teams, they simply match up better with Toronto and Chicago.
"It would be great to get in that sixth spot," Jefferson said. "... I think if we continue to win games everything will take care of itself, everything will work out. At this point we should be happy and blessed to be in any (playoff) spot."
The Magic (20-52) held Jefferson and Walker to 10 points apiece in a 92-83 win in Charlotte on Dec. 11, but Jefferson scored 30 and grabbed 16 rebounds while Walker added 19 points and 10 assists in a 111-101 road victory Jan. 17.
Orlando enters this matchup after snapping a nine-game losing streak with a 95-85 victory over visiting Portland on Tuesday to match last season's win total with 10 games remaining.
"Have not mentioned one time what our record is to the team," coach Jacque Vaughn said. "What I do mention to those guys, and (will) when we practice on Thursday, is let's come to work and get better. That's how we'll continue to judge each other and continue to push each other."