In his first eight seasons in the NBA, Kemba Walker never came close to sniffing the Eastern Conference Finals.
Walker earned individual accolades and turned into one of the premiere point guards in the NBA with the Charlotte Hornets, but postseason results didn’t follow. He played in a mere 11 playoff games during his tenure in the Queen City and never made it out of the first round. It had to creep into his mind if he would ever experience a deep playoff run or was he just destined to be the best player on a mediocre team.
But everything changed last June when the Boston Celtics, the winningest franchise in NBA history, acquired Walker via a sign-and-trade and gave him a four-year, $141 million max contract.
Expectations were different for Walker in Boston. He was expected to win. Not only in grind-it-out games in January and February, but especially when the calendar flipped to the warmer months and the playoffs began.
And as Walker showed from the very instant he took the floor with the Celtics, he had the right mix of intangibles and talent to win where he hadn’t done a lot of winning before. Walker played with too much heart, toughness and determination to come up short in the postseason with his new team.
So while Walker’s teammates in Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart celebrated advancing to their third Eastern Conference Finals appearance in their careers after a 92-87 victory over the Toronto Raptors in Game 7 on Friday night, for Walker it was uncharted territory.
He acted accordingly, letting his emotions and that infectious smile of his take charge to enjoy a moment he most certainly deserved and also most certainly needed.
“The last time I was in the playoffs was five years ago,” Walker said. “To be here in my first year and accomplish this and we’re on our way to the Eastern Conference Finals to play against a really good Miami Heat team, we have a chance to advance past that. This is big time. It’s a special feeling for me.
“It feels good to be able to play meaningful basketball. We have a special group. It’s just really an unreal feeling. I’m super excited, but can’t get too high. It feels good. Definitely celebrate a little bit, but we got work to do.”
Walker’s play against the Raptors wasn’t by any stretch the best basketball of his career. Walker struggled mightily in the final two games of the series as the Raptors deployed a box-and-one defense in the first half of both games on the All-Star guard to get him out of his offensive rhythm.
Nick Nurse’s strategy worked as well as it could. Walker mustered up just five points on 2-of-11 shooting in 52 minutes played in a Game 6 loss. Game 7 looked to be trending the same way early on as Walker didn’t register his first points until 3:49 left in the first half. It was easy to sense Walker’s frustration, which led to defensive miscues and him unable to execute a fairly routine 2-on-1 opportunity as well.
But Walker continued to battle, another desirable characteristic from the undersized point guard. It wasn’t pretty, but he finished with 14 points on 5-of-16 shooting to go along with six rebounds, four assists and two steals in 44 minutes.
The Celtics confidence in Walker never wavered, either. Walker said Brad Stevens drew up a play from him to start the fourth quarter and Walker stepped up, drilling his only 3-pointer of the game. Walker also delivered a clutch jumper midway through the fourth quarter as Pascal Siakam fouled him to create much-needed separation.
And while Walker’s play was mired with inconsistency in the series, his leadership was always there. A lack of leadership tore the Celtics down en route to a second-round exit a season ago. This year was different. Walker’s leadership permeated through the rest of the team and that was reflected again in Game 7. Walker credited his teammates for keeping him in the right frame of mind as he fought against a tough Toronto defense.
“I struggled last game. I struggled this game, but there wasn’t no quit in me,” Walker said. “My teammates they encouraged me so, so much. They made me keep my head high. Much credit to those guys because I easily could have got down on myself but they wouldn’t let me. They held me down. That’s what a team is for.”
Walker’s teammates seemed just as happy for him as they were for themselves to survive a grueling series and make it to the Eastern Conference Finals.
That shows the respect Walker has earned already in his first season in Boston by doing the right things time and time again on and off the court.
“It’s just a great feeling to have a player like Kemba, who is the ultimate competitor, unselfish. He doesn’t care if he scores 30 or two points. He just wants to win,” Smart said. “He’s excited right now as he should be. He’s worked his whole life for this.”
Now Walker gets his shot. This moment has been years in the making. He captured magic and took the University of Connecticut on a wild run in 2011 to a National Championship. He is now trying to lead the Celtics to an NBA title.
Walker’s more experienced now than he was as the fresh-faced guard taking charge of the Huskies. He knows these opportunities don’t come around often. He toiled in the NBA for almost a decade before getting this chance.
And the Celtics coaching staff and his teammates all seem to agree, nobody is more worthy of playing in the Eastern Conference Finals than Walker.
“I’m really happy for him. He deserves to experience this,” Stevens said. “He’s everything that’s good about basketball. He loves the game. He’s a great teammate. He doesn’t care if he gets any of the glory. He’s just a special guy. Guys like that deserve to play on these stages for all the marbles and I’m glad he gets to keep doing this.”