CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) – Kemba Walker shakes his head and smiles thinking about the Bobcats’ upcoming four-game stretch.
“It can’t get much tougher,” he said Thursday.
Walker and the surging Bobcats are about to find out just how competitive they are against the NBA’s top teams. They face the league’s top four teams in a tough four-game stretch beginning Friday night at San Antonio. They’ll follow that up by playing at Oklahoma City and Miami before returning home to host Indiana.
Charlotte (27-30) has won four straight since the All-Star break, its longest winning streak in three seasons.
However, beating Detroit twice, New Orleans and Memphis is one thing.
Now comes the real test, beginning against a San Antonio team that is 16-2 in the all-time series.
“The good thing about it is we’re going to know what we need to work on after that stretch of games,” coach Steve Clifford said. “Whatever you don’t do well is going to come out.”
Walker, last week’s Eastern Conference Player of the Week, said he’s looking forward to the challenge.
He said the Bobcats are playing better right now than at any point during his three seasons with the team.
“We’re locked in, extremely focused,” said Walker, a first-round pick in 2011. “This stretch is definitely a measuring stick for us, especially if we want to be in the playoffs. It’s a challenge.”
And the Bobcats are quickly gaining confidence, looking to reach the playoffs for only the second time and the first since 2010.
The Bobcats have already outperformed expectations under Clifford, the team’s first-year head coach.
With one more victory, they’ll equal their win total from the previous two seasons combined. Charlotte was 7-59 in 2011-12 and 21-61 last season.
“We’ve made a lot of strides in the last month and beat some good teams and played some good basketball,” guard Gerald Henderson said. “Our defense is in a pretty good spot and has been all season. Now our offense is getting better.”
Whether it will be good enough against the NBA’s best remains to be seen.
The Bobcats are 0-7 against the league’s top four teams.
They lost to the Heat three times, twice to the Pacers and once each to the Spurs (41-16) and Thunder. However, four of those losses have been by five points or less, giving the young Bobcats hope that they can not only be competitive, but also win.
The good news for the Bobcats is even if they get swept over the next four games, they’ve built enough of a cushion to where they’d still be among the East’s top eight teams. Detroit is the conference’s ninth-place team and the Bobcats are 4 1/2 games in front of the Pistons and also own the head-to-head tiebreaker.
But Henderson said getting swept is the last thing on his mind.
“We’re going to try to win them all,” he said. “We could lose all four or win all four. If we come out with the right mindset we should be able to win them all. But that’s why you play the games.”
Walker said the challenge will only make the Bobcats better as they prepare for the stretch run.
He said he likes the way his team is playing behind center Al Jefferson, who has been a dominant presence in the low post over the past two months since recovering from an ankle injury.
In Charlotte’s wins this season, Jefferson has averaged 24.8 points and 11.1 rebounds.
“We’re one of the more confident teams in the league right now,” Walker said. “We’re definitely looking forward to getting better and seeing what we can do against the best.”
The Spurs helped the Bobcats out Wednesday, beating Detroit 120-110 as eight players scored in double figures in their first home game since Feb. 1.
Playing without injured All-Star point guard Tony Parker, San Antonio matched its season high with 34 assists while going 44 for 82 from the field (53.7 percent).
“You get 34 assists, that’s really incredible,” coach Gregg Popovich said. “So the ball movement was fantastic, the pace, we rebounded a little better. It was a good win for them, being on the road so long.”
The Spurs did get back Kawhi Leonard, who had 15 points, six rebounds and four assists in his return from a 14-game absence due to a broken finger.
“I thought he was great,” Popovich said. “That’s a long time to not be on the court. His rhythm was pretty good. He played decent defense, took a few shots and made a couple. He did well. He did better than I would have thought, really, after all that time.”