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Opportunity awaits Walker and Hayward on playoff stage

Both are extremely talented, but neither Kemba Walker or Gordon Hayward have done much in their post season careers. This year, more than any previous one, offers the chance to change that.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The careers of Kemba Walker and Gordon Hayward have followed an eerily similar arc.

Both were taken with the ninth pick of their respective drafts, Hayward in 2010 and Walker in 2011. Both produced slowly out of the gate but gradually developed to the point where they shared the experience as first-time All-Stars in 2017.

More importantly than individual similarities, however, is the shared trait that made them teammates on the Boston Celtics: a strong desire for championship contention that pushed them from the only franchise they’d ever known.

There was a time when the careers of Walker and Hayward nearly intertwined. In the summer of 2014, Hayward, a restricted free agent, signed a four-year, $63 million offer sheet from Charlotte only to wind up back in Utah after the Jazz matched the deal.

“Being in the league together and coming in around the same time,” Hayward said before the season. “And doing different things as rookies and sophomores and Select Team on USA and also going to visiting Charlotte, all those things add up. I’ve been watching him in the league for a while, so it sure is exciting to be able to play with him.”

Walker spent eight years within a Charlotte organization that never gave his title dreams much of a chance. There were ghastly seasons and far more mediocre ones, resulting in just two postseason appearances that ended in the first round.

His playoff debut was no easy task, a first-round matchup with a Miami Heat team on its way to a fourth straight Finals appearance in 2014.

When Al Jefferson became compromised early in Game 1, Walker, in just his third season with the then Bobcats, stepped up to the challenge surprisingly well. Of course, Charlotte was swept, but Walker didn’t easily fall, averaging 18.4 points, 5.6 assists, and 1.9 steals per game, shooting 47.3 percent from the field while going 12-of-24 from beyond the arc.

Whereas Kemba was Charlotte’s second-leading scorer in his inaugural taste of the postseason, Hayward was just another piece to the Utah Jazz’s puzzle in 2012, stuck behind Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap in the offensive hierarchy.

A 21-year-old’s matchup with a battle-tested San Antonio Spurs team went about as well as you’d expect. Hayward saw 30.4 minutes per game during San Antonio’s four-game sweep but made just six of his 33 field goal attempts, including 1-of-12 on threes.

By the time they returned to the playoffs five years later, the Jazz were a different team largely because Hayward emerged a new player. He became Utah’s first All-Star since Deron Williams in 2011, seizing the reigns of a franchise he’d spent years working his way up in.

The fifth-seeded Jazz were good enough to emerge from a seven-game first round series against the LA Clippers. They quickly hit the wall against a Golden State Warriors team that won all four games by double figures on their way to the title with a 16-1 postseason record. Golden State’s dynastic abilities halted the good times of Utah’s best finish in seven years and overshadowed a criminally underrated postseason run from Hayward.

Replicas of his 24.1 points (59.8 TS%), 6.1 rebounds, and 3.4 assists per game have occurred just 29 other times in playoff history over a minimum of 10 games — Hayward was at 11. The list is filled with Hall-of-Fame names like LeBron James, Larry Bird, and Kareem-Abdul-Jabbar.

Walker’s second postseason go around might’ve lasted longer than the first, but his individual play was hardly as inspiring.

It was against the same Miami organization but a different Heat team that saw Walker shoot 36.6 percent from the field and 32.2 from downtown on his way to 22.7 points per game. Charlotte pushed the series to the distance but fell in a 33-point blowout in Game 7.

Charlotte followed up their most wins since 2000 (48) with three sub-40 win seasons. After offering a contract significantly less than the supermax he was qualified for, Walker had every reason to pursue an organization that could better utilize the latter half of his career as his 30’s neared.

“That’s why I wanted to be here,” Walker said via Bleacher Report’s Yaron Weitzman. In reference to advancing past the first round, which Walker never has, “They do that every year.”

Utah fared much better at presenting an argument for Hayward to remain in Salt Lake City. They had advanced to the second round for the first time since 2010 with a great coach in Quin Snyder and a budding Defensive Player of the Year in Rudy Gobert.

But the domineering presence of the Warriors loomed over everyone’s decision-making and the allure of reuniting with Brad Stevens, who coached him during his college days at Butler, was too much to pass up on.

“And that unfinished business we had together, back in 2010, when I left Butler for the NBA,” Hayward wrote in announcing his free agency decision via The Players’ Tribune. “As far as I’m concerned, all of these years later, we still have it:”

“And that’s to win a championship.”

Hayward’s first chance at a postseason return was canceled when his season ended not six minutes into his Celtics debut in October 2017. Amid the struggles of working his way back the following season, his inconsistencies were part of the larger disappointment Boston was all year, averaging 9.6 points in 29.7 minutes of playoff action.

Chicago Bulls v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Now, with the restart of the season and beginning of the playoffs on the horizon, both players, teammates at last, have a lot to prove.

Walker has transitioned to Boston without a hiccup, an All-Star for the fourth consecutive season at 21.2 points and 4.9 assists per game. Hayward shook off last season’s rust to put up 17.3 points on 50.2 percent shooting with 6.5 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game.

Even if they’re not among the likely Finals candidates, expectations are high for a team with as much history as the Celtics. Such pressures can be a turn off to those scared of failure and the criticism that follows.

For two players who joined the C’s after years spent toiling in irrelevance and indifference, the unrelenting spotlight is what they’ve been searching for their entire careers.

Whether through injury or a global pandemic, the moment has been delayed several times over. Now, finally, it’s primed for them to perform — even if one might have to leave early for the birth of his child.

“It’s a winning organization,” Kemba professed at his introductory press conference in July. “And I wanna win.”

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