Bubble Bits: Celtics Keep Kemba on the Sideline in Crunch Time

Despite nursing a lingering knee injury, Celtics point guard Kemba Walker scored 16 points in 19 minutes and wanted more in Boston's loss on Friday to Milwaukee.
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Every weekday, SI’s Chris Mannix will check-in with his Bubble Bits, a quick hit on something notable from inside the NBA’s campus

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – One possession game, four minutes to play and Boston’s most accomplished offensive weapon stood on the sidelines. Kemba Walker was fresh, having played just 19 minutes. He was sharp, with 16 points on a tidy 5-9 shooting.

And he wasn’t going back in.

“I’m not playing that game,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “Kemba’s knee is the most important thing. We’re trying to strengthen it. The 18-20 minutes, whatever he ended up with, that was part of the plan. We’re not going to stretch that.”

Boston resumed its season on Friday and lost to the Bucks, 119-12, as the health of its All-Star point guard loomed large. A knee injury suffered before the season shut down has lingered into its restart. Walker was limited in training camp, playing just nine minutes in one scrimmage. The Celtics placed Walker on a 20-minute limit on Friday, so in a tight game against the conference-leading Bucks, Walker stood in the bench area, the NBA’s most expensive cheerleader.

Milwaukee Bucks' Khris Middleton, right, heads to the basket past Boston Celtics' Kemba Walker during the first half of an NBA basketball game Friday, July 31, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

Milwaukee Bucks' Khris Middleton, right, heads to the basket past Boston Celtics' Kemba Walker.

Walker said his knee “felt good” in the 19 minutes he played against Milwaukee. He said he felt like himself, operating freely. It’s been a frustrating few months for Walker. While many players used the pandemic as a time to heal, Walker never did. He said he did all the “necessary things” to get the knee right. It just hasn’t responded. Still, Walker says he has been encouraged by recent progress, and believes not having to travel in the postseason will help keep his knee healthy.

“This is the first time in my career I've ever had to go through this, so it's kind of tough," Walker said. “But I'll get there. I know what it's about. I know it's about me getting better for the playoffs. I'm working every single day to get myself prepared to play big minutes in the future.”

Even if it means sacrificing in the present. With the game close, Walker pressed for a few more minutes. “Nobody listens to me,” Walker said, laughing. After the final buzzer, Stevens said, Walker made a hand gesture at Stevens from the bench. After finishing a video interview session with reporters, Walker confirmed it, adding that it was all in fun.

Indeed, Walker wants to play and Stevens wants to play him.

But with the playoffs two weeks away, the health of Walker’s knee comes first.

Giannis Gets the Benefit of the Doubt

Bucks-Celtics wasn’t without some controversy. 

In the closing minutes, Giannis Antetokounmpo attempted to run through a Daniel Theis screen. Antetokounmpo’s forearm connected with Theis’s midsection, forcing the Celtics center to fall backwards, after which a whistle blew. The referees reviewed the play and determined it was not a hostile act by the reigning MVP. They also did not call a foul on Antetokounmpo, which would have been his sixth.

“Y’all know what that’s about,” Marcus Smart said. “He’s the MVP and they didn’t want to call him for his sixth foul. Let’s a call a spade a spade.”

Milwaukee Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo, right, heads to the basket as Boston Celtics' Daniel Theis defends during the second half of an NBA basketball game Friday, July 31, 2020,

Milwaukee Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo heads to the basket as Boston Celtics' Daniel Theis defends during the second half.

Per a pool reporter, crew chief James Capers said when the play was reviewed, it was determined that Giannis’s hand did not make contact with Theis’s groin area and “therefore there was no illegal act on the play.” Asked why a foul wasn’t called, Capers said he didn’t see one.

“Hostile act review does allow for a foul,” Capers said. “Had I seen a foul, and the contact had been more than incidental, then there would have been a foul on the play. But that did not occur.”

Boston, though, isn’t buying it. In the closing seconds, Giannis and Smart had an animated exchange. When Smart finished his media session, I asked him—what was the conversation about? Smart said Giannis told him how much he respected his game. Smart responded by telling Giannis not to patronize him, that the referees were the ones that kept him in the game.