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 the 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 has the seventh-best record in the Eastern Conference and appears destined for the postseason. They're five games ahead of the ninth-place New York Knicks with 10 games remaining.
"It's exciting. It's different," Walker said after Thursday's practice. "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 is blossoming into an above-average NBA point guard in his third season. Walker said he's beginning to realize how valuable he can be on the court even if he's not the team's leading scorer.
On paper, Walker's numbers don't look all that different than last season.
He's averaging 5.8 assists per game, up slightly from 5.7 in 2013. But the difference has been in the last 13 games where Walker is averaging 7.5 assists per game.
"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 the Brooklyn Nets, his sixth double-double of the season.
He's scored 20 or more points in three consecutive games and five of the last six games and is averaging 17.8 points per game on the season, second on the team behind only the underappreciated Jefferson.
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-beater 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," said Bobcats forward Josh McRoberts said of Walker. "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 NBA 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.
"I would be great to get in that sixth spot," Jefferson said after Wednesday night's game. "... 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."
For that happiness to continue, Clifford said it's vital for Walker and Jefferson to step up down the stretch and into the postseason if the Bobcats hope to thrive and turn some heads in the playoffs.
"I think Kemba and Al are our two most important players on offense, not just scoring but because they are able to put the defense in more help situations," Clifford said.