There’s something different about how Kemba Walker is attacking the Raptors these last few games. There’s an urgency to his play, an intent to penetrate the Raptors defense on every possession, which is seeing Walker find success closer to the bucket.
That’s the perception anyway, but is it the reality?
The first thing that jumps out is that Walker is indeed driving the lane more against the Raptors (14.4 per game) than he did against the 76ers (8.3 per game). Those driving numbers make sense. The popular narrative against the 76ers was that Joel Embiid was dropping too far back, allowing Walker to punish them in the mid-range. In contrast, Nick Nurse has the Raptors wings pinching in to limit interior offense.
The “pinch” defense that the Raptors utilize limits mid-range opportunities while making it challenging to drive directly at the rim. Once one of the wing defenders gets beaten, there’s a clear path into the paint where the ball-handler will be met by a rim-protecting big.
Walker is a crafty ball-handler with years of experience in putting rim protectors in compromising positions, leading to his punishing the Raptors big men by scoring 76.2% of his drives.
Outside of the additional scoring punch, Walker provides facilitation off drives at a higher clip than in the 76ers series. When facing Embiid & Co., Walker assisted his teammates on 9.6% of his passes out of drive-and-dish scenarios. Against the Raptors, his production has more than doubled to 20.6%.
Kemba Walker is shooting 76.2% when driving against the Raptors.— Adam Taylor (@AdamTaylorNBA) September 9, 2020
He’s also converting 20.6% of his drive-and-dish passes in to assists
Those assists are essential because against Toronto, ball movement is at a premium. When the Raptors operate in a plethora of zone defenses, the Celtics have found it hard to get their offense going. With Walker penetrating the defense and causing reactionary rotations, he’s essentially opening up cutting lanes for his teammates as he sizes up his man looking for the pass or dump-off down low.
According to PBPStats.com, Daniel Theis has been the primary beneficiary of Walker’s “drive and dump” play, receiving nine assists at the rim during the playoffs. Similarly, when sharing the floor, Walker has provided Robert Williams with five easy looks at the rim, too.
Kemba has been sharing the rock during the playoffs, check out his assist network pic.twitter.com/N7eOXHi3IX— Adam Taylor (@AdamTaylorNBA) September 9, 2020
The impact of Walker driving with more regularity has been apparent both within a statistical outlook and the “eye test.” There has been a clear shift in the 6’1 guard’s aggression when finding his spots, which has elevated his team’s chances of success against a tough Raptors defense.
Unfortunately, Walker’s intensity waned in Game 4 that resulted in only nine shot attempts. That performance was an exception to his aggressiveness throughout the series, something which Walker alluded to following the game.
“I got to be more aggressive, I think, that’s unacceptable on my behalf, to be honest. There’s no way I can be taking just nine shots, that’s unacceptable.”
“At this level, that’s what it’s going to be (making adjustments). You have to be able to adjust on the fly and do it.” “We got to be more locked in as a group and execute.”
Walker practiced what he preached two days later, as he came out of the gate with assertiveness. Finishing the contest with sixteen drives in the lane, attacking the rim three or four times, and garnering two assists from dump-off passes when the big rotated.
Walker will hold the keys to Boston’s early aggression; Jaylen Brown has talked about how much energy they get from their point guard’s activity. If he can find a way to penetrate early and get some work done on the interior, it could fire up the Celtics younger scoring threats.
This year’s playoffs are Walker’s deepest run, yet he’s continually finding ways to ensure his team goes even further. Triumph doesn’t all rest on his shoulders, but Walker will play an enormous part.