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Kemba Walker needs to find another gear for the Charlotte Hornets to advance

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Kemba Walker has been Charlotte's engine all season long, but for the Hornets to advance, he'll need to dig down deep and find some more horsepower.

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

At NASCAR races, when the engines roar, the crowd does too.

Maybe that's part of the reason Al Jefferson referred to Kemba Walker as Charlotte's engine earlier this season. When Walker roars, so does Time Warner Cable Arena.

Occasionally his voice makes his presence known but for most of the 2015-16 season, the fourth-year guard has let his play make the noise. Walker's All-Star level play has made the Hornets one of the NBA's surprise teams and thrust them into the NBA Playoffs.

Season performance

Basketball fans have had admiration for Kemba Walker since his days at Connecticut. The heart and desire he's become known for was nationally put on display for the first time during the Huskies' title run. As time passes, some veteran players lose that innocent passion on an every play, night-to-night basis. Walker's fire has remained and it burns as bright as ever.

The difference this year is that Walker has taken that determination and paired it with a statistically pleasing season. He's now appealing to both the box score and the eye, the mind and the heart.

Walker worked tirelessly this offseason with Hornets shooting coach Bruce Kreutzer, who took the place of the departed Mark Price. Kreutzer convinced Walker that he needed to change his shooting mechanics, asking the guard to reconfigure his release point. Pushing that critical portion of his jumpshot three inches to the right changed Walker's life - and he'll admit it.

Walker has had a career-year on his way to leading Charlotte to the playoffs. His scoring average of 20.9 points per game is up from last season and a career-high. It's the first 20 PPG season of his career.

The uptick in scoring can perhaps be directly connected to Walker's dramatically improved outside shooting. His 3-point field goal percent rose from 30.4 percent last season to a career-high 37.1 percent this year. Walker essentially turned himself from a below average 3-pointer shooter to an above-average 3-point shooter in a summer's work.

The summer work Hornets general manager Rich Cho put in overhauling the roster has helped Walker's game as well. He's never had this much space to play in on the floor and it's created better shot opportunities for Charlotte's lead dog.

Walker has done all of this while staying available and reliable. Playing in 81 of 82 games, Walker finished the regular season having played the third most minutes of any NBA player. During all that time on the floor, Walker set a slew of career-highs. Some were mentioned above but he also found new highs in field goal percentage, rebounds, free throw percentage, 3-point field goals, 3-point attempts, offensive rating and PER.

Playoffs preview

Maybe it's my long suffering Charlotte basketball fandom but I'm not looking down the road, like hyping up the fact that the Hornets will miss the Cleveland Cavaliers in the second round of the playoffs. This city hasn't won an NBA playoff game since May of 2002 so my attention is fixed on the Miami Heat and what Charlotte needs to do in this series.

The division rivals played four games against each other this regular season, splitting the season series. In those games, Walker averaged 19.5 points, 5.3 assists and just under one turnover a game. While Miami lacks a clear defensive answer for Walker in terms of an individual assignment, Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra will use strategy to limit Walker's impression on the series.

During the Bobcats Charlotte's last playoff run, they faced a different Heat team talent-wise, but their gameplan could be the same when it comes to defending Walker. In 2014, Miami blitzed Walker in screen-and-roll situations, forcing him to give up the ball. Spoelstra wanted other players to beat his team. He may ask the same of Walker's supporting cast in 2016.

It will be up to Walker to solve the double-team off the screen-and-rolls. He's much better at feeling out these common situations than he once was. If he can solve the trap and still find an offensive impact, Charlotte should be in good shape.

Walker found another level of play this season, one many people did not believe he had. For Charlotte to beat Miami, he may have to go to the next level, one even he may not believe he has.

Kemba's on-court fire, passion and determination are contagious, and while that will important in the intense playoff environment, his play may have to be infectious for the Hornets to advance.