CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Charlotte Bobcats are back to .500 and inching closer and closer to just their second playoff appearance in franchise history.
Center Al Jefferson had 29 points and 16 rebounds, and guard Kemba Walker had a triple-double as the Bobcats (38-38) strengthened their hold on the No. 7 spot in the Eastern Conference playoff race with a 91-80 victory over the Orlando Magic on Friday night.
The Bobcats had not been at .500 since they split their first 10 games to open the season.
To Jefferson, that is a significant feat, and now the Bobcats can go over .500 on Saturday night when they play at Cleveland.
“It feels wonderful,” Jefferson said. “I don’t think we’ve been .500 since we were 5-5. It’ll be even better if we can get one game over .500. That’s our new goal now. There’s lots of small goals during the course of the season and that’s our next one.”
Bobcats coach Steve Clifford echoed Jefferson’s sentiments on a night in which the Bobcats led by as many as 21 before getting a little sloppy at times in the second half.
“I think the guys are happy to be .500,” Clifford said. “It shows how hard they’ve worked and fought to get back to this point. Now we’ve got an opportunity tomorrow to get over .500. You know, we’ve had other chances to do it and haven’t been able to, so this is good. We have struggled with Orlando for whatever reason, so obviously it’s an important win.”
Jefferson, who was named the Eastern Conference’s player of the month for March earlier this week, had 21 points and 11 rebounds by halftime, when the Bobcats led 53-36. He finished 13 of 24 from the field.
Walker finished with 13 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists for his second career triple-double. The Bobcats also got 13 points from forward Anthony Tolliver and 12 from guard Gary Neal off the bench.
“The best thing we did tonight was get the ball to Al,” Clifford said.
Clifford and Jefferson both were disappointed with the Bobcats’ lack of focus in the second half, particularly after the Bobcats got up 68-47 midway through the third. Orlando cut the margin to seven early in the fourth quarter before the Bobcats stepped on the gas again.
“Even though we won tonight, I think we still kind of laid down in the third quarter,” Jefferson said. “Instead of stepping on them, we gave them hope. That’s something we’ve got to be better at to become a better overall team.”
The Magic (21-55) found out shortly before tipoff that center Nikola Vucevic would not play because of soreness in his Achilles. Vucevic had erupted for 24 points and 23 rebounds in the Magic’s 110-105 overtime win over the Bobcats last Friday in Orlando.
Vucevic raised suspicions by saying he was not sure how he got hurt.
“I don’t really know,” he said. “It just started getting sore tonight. That hasn’t bothered me before. Maybe it’s something I did in a game, but I don’t remember doing it.”
Coach Jacque Vaughn also played starting guards Arron Affalo and Jameer Nelson only 23 and 21 minutes, respectively, which further raised the question of whether the Magic — with the third-worst record in the NBA — might be tanking the game.
“It was a great experience for some guys that don’t normally get a chance to get extended minutes and finish the game,” Vaughn said.
Guard Victor Oladipo led the Magic with 21 points and forward Tobias Harris scored 15. Nelson finished with 11 points and forward Kyle O’Quinn scored 10.
NOTES: Bobcats F Michael Kidd-Gilchrist took a nasty fall in the first quarter and suffered a severe back bruise. He tried to play again in the second half but was clearly hurting. … The Magic have the worst road record in the NBA at 4-35 and are on pace to finish with the fewest road wins in franchise history. They are now 1-24 on the road since Christmas, with their only road win coming at Philadelphia on Feb. 26. … This was the fourth and final meeting between the teams this season. The Magic had won two of the previous three. … The Bobcats, with 38 wins, have already surpassed their win total of the past two seasons combined (28). They are one of 13 teams in NBA history to do that. … Bobcats F Josh McRoberts (left ankle sprain) missed his second straight game and has already been ruled out of the Bobcats’ game at Cleveland on Saturday. … The Bobcats have been without C Brendan Haywood (stress fracture left foot) all season and will be without F Jeffery Taylor (ruptured right Achilles) for the rest of the season. … The Magic will return home to face Minnesota on Saturday.
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