The Celtics entered Orlando exemplifying the tale of two seasons as well as any other team. Boston could not court its full 15-man roster any time between opening night into mid-March, winning in spite of Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward and others trading injuries.
Four months passed and Boston brought all 17 players to the bubble COVID-free and — it appeared — healthy. In March, Walker battled left knee soreness and missed six of the Celtics’ final 10 games. Our own Keith Smith reported across various platforms to keep an eye on that knee despite Walker’s assurances of improvement and the amount of time that passed. The Celtics then held him from practice for the second straight day on Monday.
Brad Stevens discussed Walker’s status over the past several days of media availability, with an intense session on Sunday too much for Boston’s star point guard to handle for now. He shot after practice, drilling nine three-pointers in a row from the corner while wearing a knee brace, as the C’s noted on through social media.
9 straight pic.twitter.com/Fz36w1gg1m— Boston Celtics (@celtics) July 13, 2020
“He had a little bit of discomfort after the individual workouts,” Stevens said. “He feels better than he did in March. But even with the small discomfort, we wanted to take 4 days and ramp it up appropriately. His health is the most important.”
Boston’s carefulness with Walker fits their overall mantra of peaking come playoff time. They started their bubble workouts holding him back on Friday. Tomorrow’s off day for the team provides another chance for him to ease in, before he’ll return to practice on Wednesday.
Stevens exact words were: "Kemba will do much more on Wednesday".— Keith Smith (@KeithSmithNBA) July 13, 2020
Walker expressed needing the rest badly during the national quarantine, which he spent in Charlotte with Grant Williams. He missed only one game before New Year’s Day, then played 20 of Boston’s final 33 before the league’s postponement. Jayson Tatum stepped up with one of the most dominant scoring stretches of the NBA season during the final month, falling just short of 30.0 points per game. Walker’s shooting percentage fell from 43 to 40 in the new year, also slipping from 22.5 PPG to 19.3.
The Celtics thrived across thin margins in Walker’s minutes, scoring 7.6 points more per 100 possessions (117) with him on the floor as opposed to off. Opponents, however, scored 7.4 points more with him on the floor per 100. Some of this is likely due to Walker’s primary minutes coming against top lines, but Marcus Smart’s role in reducing opponents to 106 points per 100 possessions contributed to those splits as Walker’s primary backup.
An otherwise healthy Boston team has the scoring and guard depth to compensate for any Walker absence through scrimmage and eight regular season games. The Celtics enter Orlando 3.0 games back of the Raptors and 2.5 ahead of the Heat. Home court advantage is gone, but Boston has the ability to face a wide range of opponents — Miami, the 76ers, Pacers, Magic, or the depleted Brooklyn Nets.
Health and stability overrule that ultimately, so it wouldn’t be stunning to see Walker held back throughout much of the pre-playoff proceedings. The Celtics long ago clinched a playoff spot, and it would take a disaster much larger than Walker absences to fall to the five or six seed.
An injury Stevens once described as no long-term concern appearing one-third of a calendar year later is suddenly the biggest story around the team as the playoffs wait five weeks away. Though easing back is the reality for the entire league right now.
“It’s tough when you’re not able to play. You can do all the running you want,” Walker said last week. “Basketball shape is different. I’m getting there, slowly but surely for sure.”