BOSTON – You don’t have to say it. Kemba Walker will.
“I’m just playing terrible,” Walker said.
He said it on Tuesday, minutes after needing 19 shots to score 19 points in a conference finals opening loss to Miami. He could have said it last Friday, after shooting 31.3% in a Game 7 win over Toronto. Or last Wednesday, when Walker shot 18.2% in a Game 6 loss to the Raptors.
It’s been a good week for the Celtics, a conference finalist for the third time in the last four seasons.
It’s been a rough one for Walker.
It’s tough to put a finger on the root of Walker’s struggles. Is it health? Walker has been plagued by knee problems dating back to before the pandemic. He arrived in Orlando still not over the nagging left knee issue. He was on a minutes restriction during the seeding games. But the 52 minutes Walker played in Game 6 against the Raptors and the 43 he grinded out in the opener against Miami suggest the knee is just fine.
Is it the defense? The Raptors had the NBA’s second-ranked unit and a bulldog of a defender in Kyle Lowry. Toronto’s box-and-one defense flummoxed Walker in the final two games of the conference semifinals, taking him out of rhythm, which could have carried over. The Heat aren’t nearly as creative, but they are long, willing to switch out on him and have blitzed him with multiple defenders in the open floor.
“I think the defense and the opponents that we’re playing have something to do with it,” Celtics president Danny Ainge told 98.5 The Sports Hub. “I think that when they make it really hard on guys, and I’ve experienced this myself, I’ve seen players much better than myself experience it, they make it really hard on you, and then when you do get that open one it’s just more difficult.”
Is it nerves? As accomplished as Walker is (four-time All-Star, All-NBA, etc.), he’s never played this deep into the playoffs. In eight seasons with the Hornets, Walker never got out of the first round. At 30, Walker is a senior citizen on a Boston team led by 20-somethings. But those 20-somethings—Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart—have made multiple deep postseason runs.
Brad Stevens isn’t concerned about Kemba. Hasn’t been all season. On Wednesday, Stevens shrugged off a question.
“I don't lose any sleep over Kemba,” Stevens said. “Nobody cares more than Kemba. Nobody wants to play better. We are constantly going to the drawing board to figure out how we can make his life a little bit easier from our own perspectives. So we'll keep riding.”
Daniel Theis suggested there are ways to get Walker going early.
“We got to help him do that, easy looks, especially me,” Theis said. “I've got to get him open more on screens when he's got the ball. Something where he is off the ball, you have to set the screen for him so he's coming off screens and maybe a catch-and-shoot three like instead of just iso and an off-the-dribble step-back three. Especially in the beginning of the game. We need him out there and we need him to be aggressive.”
A rough game in a series opener isn’t reason to panic. But Thursday’s Game 2 represents a significant moment for Walker. He’s Boston’s third-leading scorer, averaging a shade under 20 points per game in the playoffs. He’s firing up nearly 15 shots. With Miami’s defense zeroing in on Tatum, Walker needs to be a reliable second scorer. The Celtics can’t count on Marcus Smart three-point explosions.
Said Walker, “I’ve got to try and find a way to put the ball in the basket.”
As Stevens said, there are things Boston will do differently with Walker. The Celtics got too isolation happy in Game 1, a bad habit they are determined to get away from. “I think tomorrow will be a different game,” Brown said.
Brown struggled to find an offensive rhythm while Brad Wanamaker (11 points) provided the only lift off the bench. There’s also the possibility that Gordon Hayward, sidelined since Game 1 of the opening round with a sprained ankle, could return. Hayward was upgraded to doubtful on Wednesday.
Still: Walker will need to step up. He will need to make threes—Walker is 5-for-34 from beyond the arc in the last five games. He will need to get to the free throw line. He will need to make at least a few plays defensively to dissuade Miami from hunting him on that end of the floor. Stevens will continue to trust him. Walker, now, must reward it.
“I have to make better decisions,” Walker said. “I just have to make shots.”