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We got our Kemba back

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In the offseason, Kemba Walker received a stem cell injection in his balky knee. Soon, the Celtics will receive a Kemba Walker injection into the best team of the Eastern Conference.

New York Knicks v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Listening to Kemba Walker talk ball, you’d think he was playing jazz. After a limited 20-minute stint in his first game back against the Knicks, Kemba said, “I’ll get my rhythm, it’s just a matter of time. I’m not in any type of rush.”

However, as CelticsBlog’s Daniel Lubofsky noted in Kemba’s rocky return (3-for-13 from the field with five turnovers), getting him back up to speed in the middle of a season could take some time, but at least he’s back and flashing that infectious smile.

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.

Walker looked fast and bouncy and most importantly, he felt pain-free. As Brad Stevens noted, Walker hasn’t looked this fresh since he joined Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Marcus Smart on Team USA for the 2019 FIBA World Cup. The timing will eventually come and when Walker is in tune with his teammates, he’s one of the most complete pick-and-roll point guards of this generation.

The numbers are the numbers. Kemba averaged nearly 20 points, 4 rebounds, and 5 assists with a bum knee last season, but to truly appreciate Kemba’s artistry, you have to deep dive into the skeleton key of basketball. Over the last five seasons, Walker has been one of the most prolific ball handlers in the PnR. In his final three seasons in Charlotte, he was first in points scored twice; last year in Boston, he still ranked in the 92.9th percentile and was 6th in points per game.

At only six feet tall, Walker has had to become a five-tool point guard in the pick-and-roll, proficient in pull-up threes, pull-up mid-range shots, changing speeds to attack rim protectors, finishing at the rim, and creating contact and getting to the free throw line.

In the playoffs, Walker faced a variety of defenses and had a counter for every defensive scheme. Against the 76ers, Walker ate well from Philly’s drop coverage buffet. With Joel Embiid lumbering in the front court and backpedaling on any perimeter screen action, he could either pull up from behind the arc or settle into a 15-footer around the free throw line.

If defenders are going to get caught up on screens or go under, it’s easy money for Kemba and the Celtics. In the regular season, Walker was one of the best and prolific pull up shooters in the league. To put Kemba’s output in perspective, James Harden averaged 11.6 pull up FGA’s per game (10.9 3FGA’s) for a eFG% of 51.1%. West coast Kemba, Damian Lillard, shot 10.1 FGA’s (7.5 3FGA’s) at a 55.2 eFG% clip. Walker clocked in at 8.5 pull up FGA’s per game (5.9 3FGA’s) with a 52.3 eFG%. That’s good company to be in.

So, that’s level 1. And if defenses can run Kemba off the line, he’s a killer mid-range shooter, too. Last year, he shot nearly 50% on above-the-break 18-footers; league average is around 40%. That’s level 2.

Toronto was a little more deliberate defensively with their trick coverages and often focused exclusively on Walker. Against Philadelphia, Kemba averaged 24 points on 49% shooting in a sweep. Versus Toronto, those numbers dropped to 42% for 17 points a game in large part to the Raptors box-and-1 designed specifically to stop him. His efficiency was down, but he still found ways to score and raised his assists from 4 to 6 per game in the seven-game series.

With a defender dedicated to Kemba and the rest of the Raptors in a zone, Walker looked to attack more and become more of a distributor. Even in his limited capacity, he’s waterbug of a point guard. Even when Toronto threw a second and sometimes third defender on him with the ball in his hand, he found seams to attack. It what should have been the Game 3 winning bucket, he snaked his way through the pressure defense and found Daniel Theis all alone under the basket.

The Eastern Conference Finals was probably the best approximation of Walker’s overall impact. Against an average defense without particularly great defense on the perimeter, Walker attacked slower guards and wings with his speed and quickness. That should be the case against most NBA teams. For the most part, they played him straight up, so unless teams are going to create a gimmick defense to stop him like Nick Nurse did, he’ll find ways to impact winning even if they take away parts of his arsenal.

The Celtics (8-4) have been able to weather the storm of his absence in large part to the exceptional play of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. The cornerstone duo had taken on not just the burden of scoring, but also in playmaking responsibilities. Tatum has picked up where he left off last year in his first All-Star campaign (14.3 AST%—>17.5%, 28.0 USG%—>29.4%), but Brown has considerably improved in making plays for his teammates (9.5 AST%—>20.5%, 24.5 USG%—>28.6%). The question now is how Walker gets reintroduced into the offense.

“With me, I’m going to be out there and I’m going to do my part. I’m going to play hard. I’m going to shoot my open shots,” Walker said after his first game back. “(Jaylen)’s killing it. I don’t want him to think that just because I’m back that he can’t keep killing it because he can. That’s what I’m here for. I’m here to continue to encourage him just to be great which he’s been all year. I just want to try and add on to it. That’s it.”

Walker’s modesty has always shined through in his time in Boston and to some extent, that’s what’s made him a perfect fit in the locker room and sharing the floor with such a young team.

Again, let’s talk jazz. While there are great bands, the greatest jazz musicians are great soloists. As constructed right now, the Celtics have a Coltrane and Miles Davis and Bird and a pretty good collection of studio players. When he gets his sea legs under him, he’ll plug right in as another mismatch for Brad Stevens to utilize. So far, Boston has used a patchwork job at the point guard position with Smart, Jeff Teague, and Payton Pritchard all handling the rock. They’ve all found some success, but collectively, they haven’t nearly matched Kemba’s production as a focal point in the offense.

In Walker’s stead, the Celtics are only averaging 15.8 points from pick-and-roll ball handlers after finishing last year in the top-3 in 2019-2020 (23.9 points per game, 93.1st percentile). That will change.

Consider what the matchups might look like in tonight’s game against the 76ers. Ben Simmons will most like cover Jayson Tatum. Jaylen Brown will get checked by Tobias Harris. If there’s a pressure point to be pushed, it might be at point guard with Kemba vs. Seth Curry or Danny Green. There are certainly spacing advantages and player gravity that comes with Kemba that Tatum and Brown will benefit from, but with as much isolation ball that Boston plays, it’s just nice to have another guy that can solo and riff to the tune of 20 & 5 every night.