It wasn’t until just before 11 am on Sunday when Kemba Walker was listed as available for Boston’s 1 pm game against New York. After missing the first eleven games of Boston’s season, his mere presence was the lone bright spot in an otherwise embarrassing 105-75 loss to the Knicks, even if he too struggled to make much happen.
Kemba was limited to 20 minutes in his first action since Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals. He played 19:37. And though he stuffed the stat sheet with nine points, four assists, three rebounds and three steals, the season debut was your classic case of a player shaking off rust that’s been accumulating since late September, where Walker made just 1 of his 8 3-point attempts, shooting 3-of-13 overall with five turnovers.
One of the earliest plays of the game indicated the rhythm Kemba still needed to find, where after intercepting an RJ Barrett pass and taking it the length of the court, Walker went up for a layup he didn’t end up taking, coming down and being called for a travel.
Timing in the pick-and-roll is everything, which is what makes the chemistry between the two participants so crucial for its execution. In the play below, Tristan Thompson hasn’t even begun rolling to the rim before Kemba flings a no-look bounce pass to the space he believes Thompson is supposed to occupy, which winds up out of bounds.
As much continuity as this Celtics team carries over from last season, Thompson and Walker are two starters who only just shared the court together. They’ll be executing that play with consistency in due time. Failure in this instance is a simple reminder of the ground Walker needs to make up not just individually, but also in (re)establishing a connection with his teammates.
“I thought, as anybody would have predicted with very limited practice time, there were parts that he probably felt a little rusty,” Brad Stevens said of his point guard after the loss. “But as far as physically moving up and down the floor, all those type of things, I thought he looked good.”
Stevens certainly had a point, because inefficient shooting and more turnovers than assists were certainly poor results. But the process leading to box score additions good and bad had Kemba looking like his usual self.
One of the few good quantifiable contributions from Walker came via a double drag that had him go right at Mitchell Robinson. A 6’0’’ guard challenging a lanky shot blocker like Robinson doesn’t favor the offensive player. In typical Kemba fashion, a burst to the basket is followed by the smallest of brakes to ensure his body keeps Robinson from getting a hand on the shot, clipping the head of Walker instead for an and-1 layup.
Walker could’ve posted any type of stat line in a game that featured any type of outcome. The true takeaway from this game disregards all of those possibilities in favor of acknowledging how joyous it was to just see Kemba back on the court.
His return is only the first step in a long process towards ensuring he is the player the Celtics need him to be in the postseason. But even amid a 30-point blowout, that giant smile of his was flashed several times for a reason, indicative of how happy Walker was to simply begin that journey.
Finally healthy looking as spry as he has in a long time, Kemba is ready to resume the task that brought him to Boston. That’s a win satisfying enough to overshadow one of the worst losses in recent memory.
“It feels weird actually not having pain, if that makes sense,” Walker said of his body after the game. “It’s kind of a weird feeling. I’ve been hurt for a very long time, so I was really just happy to get out there, just super excited. It was fun. I can’t wait to get back out there.”