If there’s a word to be used in describing Kemba Walker’s experience in the bubble so far, it’s patience.
After dealing with knee issues in March and February, missing nine games and struggling in the ones he did participate in, the Celtics have made a concerted effort to gingerly bring their point guard back up to speed.
That’s meant keeping him out of multiple practices, implementing a “one day on, one day off” plan that gradually increased Walker’s load through individual workouts. It also included holding him out of Boston’s first scrimmage against OKC.
All that restraint paid off on Sunday when Walker made his official return in the Celtics’ 117-103 victory over the Suns.
He managed only nine minutes of playing time, the last of which came with just under nine minutes remaining in the second quarter. Boston kept playmaking duties to a minimum, allowing Kemba to ease his way back into the ebb and flow of a basketball game without placing too much responsibility on that troublesome left knee.
Walker was 2-of-6 from the field including 1-of-4 from distance, rust that was to no one’s surprise after the extended time away from the game. But there were signs of the All-Star who averaged 21.2 points a night during the regular season.
Not two minutes into the game, Kemba showcased his trademark hesitation burst when he blew past Phoenix big man Deandre Ayton from the left corner for an and-1 layup.
He came off a double screen early in the second quarter to knock down a pull up 3-pointer, just as he’s done countless other times throughout the year.
The knee proved to be enough of an afterthought when Walker, who ranked seventh in drawn charges during the regular season, showed no hesitation standing pat for a charge attempt that was unfortunately ruled a blocking foul.
“I thought he looked good,” Brad Stevens said after the game. “I thought he had his burst. I thought he played hard defensively. Created chaos on a couple of different plays. Offensively, I thought he got to the rim and or got his shot.”
The Celtics have one remaining scrimmage, Tuesday against the Rockets, before the first of their eight seeding games begin Friday against Milwaukee. The regular season work that built a comfortable 2.5 game lead over Miami will allow further maintenance on Walker’s knee before the postseason, something Stevens expects to do.
As important a step as the Suns scrimmage was in his journey to full health, Stevens’ management of Kemba’s playing time ensured that it was still viewed as a part of a bigger plan to ease Walker back. It’s the only way to ensure he’s at his best when the Celtics ultimately need him to be, even if he is at times antsy for an alternative.
“I would love to just be like, you know what, I don’t care about no minute restriction or anything of that nature, but obviously I can’t,” Walker said after the game. “I gotta be smart about things at this point.”
“It is what it is. I wanna be there for my teammates when we’re in the playoffs.”