Kemba Walker’s inaugural postseason run with the Boston Celtics did not arrive without significant questions surrounding the right knee that had dictated his bubble experience to that point.
It didn’t matter that the NBA’s March 11th suspension offered more than four months to heal the knee that had hamstrung his post-All-Star break production.
He missed two of the Celtics’ eight seeding games, one to avoid playing both sides of a back-to-back and the other a meaningless finale against Washington. Kemba played more than 30 minutes only once, an overtime victory over the Orlando Magic — he did not appear in the extra session. He never scored more than 19 points.
The idea that Walker could then step into the trials of the postseason the same player who made the All-Star Game as Boston’s second leading scorer wasn’t easily digestible even to fans.
Four games later, Kemba didn’t simply emerge from Boston’s first-round series victory unscathed, knee intact, preserved on the shelf. He was in the trenches as a catalyst for his first-ever trip to the conference semis.
He put up 24.3 points in just 32.8 minutes a night to sweep Philadelphia out of the postseason. He capped off his first playoff series in green with a game-high 32 points to send the Sixers home in Game 4 despite battling an illness that kept him from Boston’s Sunday film session.
“He’s just a warrior,” Brad Stevens said of his point guard. “He’s a competitor. The guy loves to play. Doesn’t surprise me that he’s been so good even under those circumstances.”
No player with more than ten nightly pick-and-roll possessions in these playoffs had a higher frequency of such plays than Kemba. Against Philly’s drop coverage content to keep Joel Embiid as close to the bucket as possible, one of the game’s premier pull-up shooters feasted everywhere inside the arc.
Walker canned 57.7 percent of more than six nightly pull-up 2-pointers he unleashed against Philly. He was 9-of-12 at the rim, a combination of crafty and explosive not even Embiid could stop when it came charging right at him.
According to the matchup data provided by NBA.com, Embiid contested 18 of Walker’s field goals during the four games, tied for the most of any Sixer with Shake Milton. Kemba hit nine of them and was blocked only once.
In retrospect, Milton was an odd choice as the primary defender on Walker. If for no other reason than Philly had Josh Richardson, who guarded Kemba for the fourth-most minutes of any NBA player during the regular season and held him to 4-of-11 shooting, including 2-of-6 on threes. “I can’t escape, Josh,” Walker said prior to the start of the series. “I can’t escape Josh, man.”
In over 17 minutes, by far the most of any Sixer, Milton simply lacked the ballhawking aggressiveness necessary to force Walker into mistakes. It’s why Kemba committed just four turnovers the entire series.
Perhaps most encouraging of all, after struggling with his outside shot in the first two games, Kemba broke out by shooting 7-of-17 on combined triples in Games 3 and 4.
“I did not think we were gonna see that version of him again,” Celtics fanatic Bill Simmons said on his podcast Sunday night. “I was really really really discouraged and pessimistic about his ceiling. And by the end of this series, I thought he looked like Kemba again.”
Credit to Walker and the entire Celtics organization for flipping that pessimism into incredible amounts of confidence heading into Boston’s second-round matchup against Toronto.
Yet even without Kyle Lowry, who’s status for Game 1 and beyond is in question due to a sprained left ankle, the Raptors are not the Sixers. The defending champs possess every which way to slow down opposing offenses, as they’ve shown all season en route to the second-best defense in the NBA.
“This is the reason I came to Boston,” Walker said after Game 4. “To be able to play in the playoffs and advance, play high-level basketball. So, it feels good.”
His knee probably feels even better, having helped quickly put away Philly. Considering the lengthy postseason Boston hopes to embark on, it’s certainly a great first step in making that happen.