In the final moments of the Celtics’ 96-95 loss to the Lakers on Saturday night, it was all Kemba Walker. With Boston down 1 with 10.8 seconds left on the clock, Kemba stripped Anthony Davis on a fade away and hit Jaylen Brown streaking down the court. After recovering the ball, Semi Ojeleye found Walker in a familiar spot on the floor.
The left elbow has been Cardiac Corner for Walker where he’s hit big shot after big shot to win games. After shaking Dennis Schröder with his patented step back, Walker rose for a fifteen footer that he’s hit a thousand times.
But not last night.
“That’s a great look for Kemba in that scramble situation. I loved it,” Brad Stevens said of his team’s final shot to win the game. “Great player got a great look.”
For Walker, that miss is sadly representative of his rocky return since a stem cell injection in his knee kept him out for the first eleven games of the regular season. Still under a minutes restriction, Walker is averaging just 14 points on 37.3% shooting (29.3% from behind the arc). He’s pain-free from the knee trouble that hampered him in the second half of last year and in the playoffs and he’s looked quick and bouncy since coming back. His shots just aren’t falling yet.
Against the Lakers, Walker had one of the worst shooting nights of his career, hitting just one of his twelve field goal attempts that included three blocked by Montrezl Harrell.
“It’s more mental than anything, I think. I’m trying my hardest just not to get frustrated. I got frustrated tonight at myself and it kind of put me in a bad place,” Walker said of his off night. “And you know I’m not a player like that to really get frustrated. You know, I’m always smiling and I wasn’t that tonight. I got into my own head and mentally, I hurt myself.”
"I got frustrated tonight... Mentally I hurt myself. I can't do that to this team." - Kemba Walker pic.twitter.com/7YiL3bRwb2— Celtics on NBC Sports Boston (@NBCSCeltics) January 31, 2021
The nine-year vet knows that this is a blip. Walker has been one of the most consistently effective point guards in the league over the last five years and the four-time All-Star understands his responsibility to lead this young team.
“I can’t do that for this team, These guys, they look to me. Especially when things are going tough. These guys look at me. I can’t put my head down and be not mentally engaged in the game like I was tonight.”
Despite Kemba’s difficulties to “find (his) rhythm, find (his) spots,” head coach Brad Stevens isn’t worried. Los Angeles’ #1 ranked defense schematically “put a lot of pressure on (Kemba)” and took him out of the game. It’s a tactic that Toronto used in the second round of the playoffs last year, but even hobbled by his knee, Walker found ways to be effective and Stevens is confident that he’ll find his stride again.
“We’re riding Kemba. He’s a really good player who really cares about his team, really wants to be a part of something special with guys that are going to give for each other,” Stevens said. “Sometimes, it’s not your night, but more often than not, it is his night and we believe strongly in that.”
Jayson Tatum, who picked up the scoring slack with a team high 30 points, doesn’t seemed fazed either. “We just need to do a better job of getting him involved while he’s out there. He’s one of the best players in the league,” Tatum said. “Once he finds his rhythm, we’ll be clicking on all cylinders.”