Friends, a fresh, new season of Boston Celtics basketball is bearing down upon us. Seemingly freed of the toxic locker room environment that plagued last season’s ill-fated squad and fresh off an undefeated preseason, that “new team smell” is in the air, and it smells pretty good.
The Celtics were as cautious as most teams tend to be in the preseason, so apart from some assertive offensive play from Jayson Tatum and some hints of improved athleticism from Gordon Hayward, the team’s core rotation players were pretty quiet. Instead, the stars of Boston’s impressive preseason were — figuratively and, in some cases, literally — the little guys: impressive rookies like Carsen Edwards, Grant Williams, Tremont Waters and the much-loved Tacko Fall.
Perhaps a little lost in all the excitement was the crown jewel of Boston’s offseason, Kemba Walker, who understandably saw very limited time on the court during the preseason after headlining Team USA at the FIBA World Cup. So, in the interest of reminding everyone about Boston’s new All-Star talent, it seems like a good time to take a stroll through memory lane and discuss Walker’s most memorable performances in his final season with the Charlotte Hornets.
#5 — 47 points on 28 shots against Utah on April Fool’s Day
We begin our list with Walker’s second-highest scoring performance of the season, which came late in the season as the Hornets tried to cling to their slim Eastern Conference playoff odds.
Walker’s Hornets teammates seemed to have an unfortunate idea for an April Fool’s Day prank in this game: they just decided not to score the basketball. Apart from Walker, only two players — Jeremy Lamb (23 points) and Willy Hernangomez (15) — scored more than six points in the contest. Marvin Williams, Miles Bridges, Frank Kaminsky and Devonte Graham combined for a whopping 88 minutes on the court without scoring a single bucket, shooting 0-for-19 between the four of them. Subtract Walker’s 15-for-28 performance, and the Hornets shot just 33% from the field.
As we continue with the list, you’ll notice this isn’t an aberration — it was practically the status quo. Last season’s Hornets often required Walker to score 40% or more of their points just to stay competitive. To his credit, Walker was typically up to the task. Such as...
#4 — 40 points, 10 rebounds, 7 assists on 70% shooting against the Rockets
Another big scoring night, another loss. This is what’s truly staggering about the Hornets last season: Walker scored 40 points or more seven times for the year. The Hornets lost six of those games, five by just single-digits. This is the lone double-digit loss of the bunch, but you can hardly attribute that to Walker; once again, the remainder of the Hornets’ offense largely disappeared. Without his hyper-efficient 14-of-20 shooting night, Charlotte shot just 14-of-69 from the field.
This game took place in April, when the oft-injured Houston Rockets were finally operating at close to full strength, and looking like a potential juggernaut in the midst of winning 12 out of 13 games. It looked like they were going to bury the Hornets under a 28 point lead midway through the game, and they very well might have succeeded if not for Walker, who didn’t miss a single shot attempt in the second or third quarters. A 12-point margin of defeat might not seem like anything to write home about, but Walker’s never-say-die attitude was the only thing preventing this game from getting truly ugly.
#3 — 43 points and 7 three-pointers to beat the Celtics
It’s perhaps only fitting that the lone victory of Walker’s seven 40-point performances came against the Celtics themselves.
Staring down a double-digit deficit in the fourth quarter, Walker went nuclear. He scored 21 points in the final nine minutes of regulation, including four three pointers. Walker spent the night raining pull-up jumpers on helpless defenders, but with the clock winding down, coach James Borrego flipped the script. He put the ball in the hands of veteran guard Tony Parker and sending Walker flying around off-ball screens. The strategy paid off: Walker splashed a triple off an assist from Parker, and the threat of his off-ball movement help set Parker up with a pair of crucial midrange jumpers himself.
As you may remember, this wasn’t the only time Walker was a thorn in Boston’s side last season. Four months later, he’d strike again — one-upping himself with the second-best performance on our list.
#2 — A near triple-double (and 18 fourth quarter points) to beat... the Celtics, again
As if to prove that they never really figured things out during the course of their maddeningly inconsistent season, the Celtics nearly bookended their year with a second loss to Walker and the Hornets in almost identical fashion.
With eight minutes remaining in the game, the Celtics led by 18 points. From that point on, the Hornets outscored Boston 30-5 behind 18 points from Walker. With six seconds left on the clock, he hit a pair of free throws to ice the game for good. There’s plenty to be said about this game, but no amount of words could speak more loudly than the win probability tracker for the contest already does.
Kemba’s final stat line for the night? 36 points, 11 rebounds, 9 assists and six made three-pointers, narrowly missing his first triple-double since the 2013-14 season. But for all the stat-sheet stuffing, none of these performances come close to his crowning achievement from last season.
#1 — 60 points on 62% shooting against the 76ers
You knew it was coming. What else could it be?
This is, without a doubt, the defining performance of Walker’s 2018-19 season, the exact moment when basketball fans realized that he was putting together a special campaign. Walker poured in 60 points — a Hornets franchise record — in an overtime loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, even as the recently acquired Jimmy Butler served as his primary defender. It took a buzzer-beating three-pointer from Butler to sink the Hornets, despite — as you might expect — a miserable shooting night from everyone besides Walker himself. This time was perhaps the most dire example of his lack of support: non-Walker Hornets shot just 32% for the night.
“As much as I wanted the shot to go in to win the game, I also wanted it to go in because I didn’t want Kemba to give me 70,” Butler said after the game. “I wanted it to stop at 60.”
Scoring 60 points in an NBA game is an accomplishment in almost any context, but what makes this performance even more remarkable is what he went on to do next. The third game on his list, the 43 point night to beat Boston, happened the very next game. Walker scored 103 points over the span of three days, on just 59 shots. It was one of the most remarkable feats of the entire NBA season.
So what have we learned? Well, for starters, the 2018-19 Charlotte Hornets were quite bad. Walker spent the season operating with little to no offensive support. The Hornets took a lot of heat over the past few years for failing to surround Walker with adequate supporting talent, and this was perhaps the most egregious example. With just one even borderline-star-caliber player, Charlotte would have easily been a playoff team.
The good news for both Walker and the Celtics is that he won’t have to carry such a load again: you could make an argument that four or five players on this roster would have been the second-best player on last year’s Hornets. Virtually by himself, Kemba Walker had Charlotte knocking on the door of the Eastern Conference playoffs last season. Now, with the talented rotation of the Boston Celtics at his side, we might finally get to see him reach even greater heights.