Magic-Hornets Preview

Charlotte is back in the NBA playoffs thanks in large part to the improved play of Kemba Walker.

The fifth-year point guard has improved dramatically in nearly every statistical category this season for the Hornets, who go into Wednesday's matchup against the Orlando Magic tied for the fifth-best record in the Eastern Conference at 47-34.

Not bad for a team that only won 33 games last season.

Just as Walker has improved, so have the Hornets - the correlation in their success is undeniable.

Walker has upped his scoring average to 21.1 points this season - 15th in the NBA - compared to 17.3 in 2014-15. The biggest improvement has come in his 3-point shooting which is at 37.4 percent after he shot 30.4 percent last season. His true shooting percentage is up 7 percent to 48.6, and even his rebounding numbers and free throw percentage have climbed.

''He's playing at an All-Star level,'' teammate Nicolas Batum said.

Walker's notable improvement over last season prompted the Hornets public relations staff to put together an online spoof based off this year's political campaigns featuring Walker as a prime ''candidate'' to win the NBA's Most Improved Player.

Hornets coach Steve Clifford said Walker's competitiveness is ''contagious'' and he's never met anyone who has worked harder in an effort to take his game to the next level.

''He's done everything he could to make himself a better player,'' Clifford said.

He scored a career-high 52 points in a win over Utah on Jan. 18 and had 40 in a win at Orlando four days later, among his 13 30-point games this season. Walker said he's finally found the consistency he lacked during his first four NBA seasons.

He's scored 20 or more points in 40 games this season, doubling last year's total. He's one of only five NBA players with at least 1,600 points, 400 assists, 300 rebounds, 100 3-pointers and 100 steals.

''The last couple of years, I have always had stretches where I have played pretty well, but this year I have had multiple stretches where I was just on fire - just playing really well for a long period of time,'' Walker said.

The Hornets will finish either fifth or sixth in the East and play Atlanta, Miami or Boston in the first round.

Charlotte won 114-100 in Boston on Monday behind Jeremy Lin's 25 points, but he's shot 7 of 22 for a combined 20 points in three meetings with the Magic (35-46). The Hornets have won the last two, including a 107-99 home victory March 16 as Batum and Marvin Williams each scored 26.

Orlando's Victor Oladipo averaged 27 points in those defeats, but he and Aaron Gordon are likely to miss a third straight game due to concussion symptoms. Fellow starter Nikola Vucevic (groin, leg) may also sit out the season finale for a team that has had some too little, too late success.

The Magic have won six of nine following a 10-30 stretch that took them out of playoff contention. Still, Orlando will post its highest win total since 2011-12 in coach Scott Skiles' first season at the helm.

"We're going the right way,'' point guard Elfrid Payton told the team's official website. "I honestly thought that everybody in this locker room got better (from last) summer and I expect the same thing this year.''

Payton, averaging 8.6 assists in the last 11 games, has been joined in the backcourt lately by rookie Mario Hezonja with Oladipo sidelined. The No. 5 overall pick had 19 points along with career highs of seven assists and five steals in Monday's 107-98 win over Milwaukee.

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