The redemption project is officially underway. A performance like this from Kemba Walker has been simmering under the surface in recent weeks. Against Indiana, we saw a phoenix rising from the ashes, shaking off the memories of the recent past, focused solely on scorching whatever stood in its path.
Down by double digits early in the first quarter, Walker tapped into the dormant scorer that had terrorized defenses year-after-year in Charlotte. With a swagger to his play, the Bronx native put the team on his back, willing them level in a matter of minutes.
“I don’t think we win this game without his (Walker’s) will tonight. When that thing was 18-4, he was the loudest voice, he was the one that willed us back into that thing.” - Brad Stevens
When Walker is hitting these shots with this level of artistry mid-way through the first quarter, there’s a calmness that ensues. The burst of speed, ability to change direction on a dime, and explosiveness to create space, they’ve been there all season, but rarely at the same moment.
What’s more encouraging than Walker hitting a pull-up three when coming off a screen? Walker penetrating the defense, using his gravity to collapse the defense before spraying the ball to an open shooter. See, here’s the thing, when a player is trying to propel themselves into a rhythm, they often force some of their looks - we’ve seen this far too often from multiple Celtics this year, and Walker is no different.
But when shots are falling, you can afford to operate with patience, to continually probe the defense’s resistance until you see it begin to break. Sometimes you will see the cracks form after the first drive; other times, it will be on the second or third, but by remaining confident that you can score at a moment’s notice, the emphasis changes.
With confidence comes creativity such as the above play, beating your man off the dribble, driving middle, utilizing a step-back off a beautiful change of pace, then draining a pull-up jumper over one of the league’s premier shot blockers.
Despite his happy persona, Walker is an assassin, and when he smells blood in the water, he goes hunting.
And hunt he did, as Walker found multiple ways to force Indiana into switching Myles Turner onto him throughout the game, punishing the big man every time. Whether it be a jab step, step-back, pulling-up off a screen, or veering on the drive - Walker found ways to ensure it would be a tough night for whoever the Pacers tasked with guarding him.
Isolation plays have been a topic of discussion throughout the Celtics’ downward slide in recent weeks, yet when they look like this and end with a positive outcome, you quickly realize why they have a place in a modern NBA offense.
Walker sizes up Turner before relocating back onto the perimeter. A blistering first step gets the Pacers shot-blocking extraordinaire on his hip before Walker veer steps on the drive to allow for the finish at the rim.
More important than making the shot, is that by veering into Turner, you’re encouraging the big to foul you as they contest from behind. Furthermore, the space created by locking the trailing defender on your hips ensures that if help defense rotates over, there’s an easy swing pass to the weak side corner with very little resistance.
One of Walker’s biggest knocks this season has been his inability to draw shooting fouls. During his time in Charlotte, Walker attracted an average of one shooting foul for every ten shot attempts. This year, it’s a career-low 7.4%.
Much of this issue has been due to his willingness to settle for perimeter shots. However, in line with Walker’s uptick on offense, the foul drawing was back to its best, as he went to the line four times and hit all eight of his shots.
The foul drawing didn’t stop on the offensive end either, as Walker heeded Brad Stevens’ request for his stars to start “hitting the floor and drawing charges.”
Here’s a clutch defensive possession down the stretch that kills the offensive advantage while also providing the Celtics with an additional opportunity to extend the lead. In the absence of Marcus Smart, seeing another veteran leader put their body on the line motivates the team’s younger contingent.
Overall, this was an encouraging performance from a player who’s struggled to implement their will onto games for most of the season. Despite flirting with breakout scoring nights in recent games, Walker’s presence has been resigned to a championing voice either on the sidelines or trailing plays as a tertiary scoring option.
Everybody needed a performance like this from the Celtics’ $30 million point guard, not least Walker himself. If Boston is to have any chance of turning their poor performances around and making a deep playoff run, these types of scoring nights from Walker will quickly need to become par for the course, particulary when Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are struggling. When Walker is scoring at the level he displayed against Indiana, playmaking follows closely behind - that’s what scoring gravity is; it’s a science.
While this might only be one game, in a season where one good game is quickly followed by multiple bouts of sadness and sorrow, there’s encouragement bubbling on the surface. Walker’s performance wasn’t an unexpected turn of events. The surprise came with how effortless he made everything look and how uplifting his exploits were to those around him.