ORLANDO — On his left leg were two overstuffed ice packs, cooling, protecting, and healing the left knee that has caused Kemba Walker so much trouble this season. He could have pounded the knee for more minutes if the Celtics had allowed, but we may not have been here if that was the case.
Here was Walker’s first career playoff series victory. For eight years, Walker labored with the Charlotte Bobcats/Hornets, becoming the lone cornerstone of a franchise that has not sustained any prolonged success since returning to the NBA 15 years ago.
Walker represented all that was good about the Hornets and then they essentially betrayed him by not offering anything close to a maximum contract to stay, when he made it clear he wanted to re-sign. So he signed a max deal with the Celtics, the first time in his career he didn’t have to be the lone focal point on a team, no more constant late double teams, no more, “Kemba, why didn’t you win us the game?” from fans.
Walker had a chance to play a role on a team with championship aspirations. So as his knee calmed down and he expressed gratitude for the Celtics ignoring his pleas to play more minutes during the last couple of weeks, he is relieved that at age 30, he finally won a playoff series.
Unleashed by Celtics coach Brad Stevens and the medical staff for this series, Walker finished his slicing and dicing of the Philadelphia 76ers with a team-high 32 points in the Celtics’ 110-106 win at The Field House. The Celtics swept the best-of-seven series and advanced to the Eastern Conference semifinals, a place Walker has never been.
Coincidentally, the Celtics sent home the man Walker would replace in Boston. There was a gaping hole in the team’s arsenal when Al Horford left to sign a four-year, $109 million deal with the 76ers, but that also left open a large enough salary slot to sign Walker.
If Horford had remained in Boston, the Celtics would not have been able to sign Walker.
So there sat Walker, ice water literally dripping off his left knee, grinning in exhaustion as he reflected on a nine-year NBA sojourn.
“Nah, it feel good man, I can’t lie,” Walker told the Globe. “I’ve been to the playoffs two times before this. I played against LeBron James, Chris Bosh, and D [Dwyane] Wade one time and they swept up. The next year we played Miami again and lost in Game 7, so we put up good fights but it never happened.
“Now that I’m able to get out of that first round, it’s definitely a great feeling. This is the reason I came to Boston, to be able to play in the playoffs and advance, playing high-level basketball.”
While the 76ers were focused on attempting to limit budding superstars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, Walker entered this series as a somewhat of a wild card. He played well at times during the seeding games but was saddled with minute limitations.
There was an instance in the seeding opener with the Milwaukee Bucks that Walker cursed Stevens after being told he couldn’t return when the Celtics were rallying in the fourth quarter. When the playoffs began, Walker had no limit and he responded by averaging 24.3 points in the series on 49.3 percent shooting.
He hit several clutch shots in the past two games, as the 76ers constantly allowed him into the paint to work. This scenario is exactly what the Celtics envisioned when they decided to limit Walker once they arrived in Orlando, allow him to strengthen the knee during seeding games to ensure he’s fresh for when it counts.
“He didn’t like playing in limited minutes building up; he didn’t like not practicing but got the knee stronger, got ready to go for trying to be the best he could be on Aug. 17,” Stevens said. “We said that from the get-go. I thought he was really good. He was great [Sunday]. He’ll have to continue to be really good. He’s just a warrior, a competitor, the guy just loves to play. It doesn’t surprise me that he’s been so good under these circumstances.”
Stevens has no issue making tough roster and playing time decisions if it’s for the long-term good of the team. He pulled Daniel Theis after 30 seconds in Game 4 and benched him for the rest of the quarter for missing an assignment. He doesn’t mind being the short-term enemy because it’s for the greater good, so it was a no-brainer to limit Walker even when he wanted to finish out against the rival Bucks.
“There’s so many great qualities [about Kemba] it’s not fair to single out one with the exception that he really loves basketball,” Stevens said. “And he loves all the good stuff about it. And that’s what team, competing, playing both ends, like he’s … he’s just got the mentality that he wants to win and just loves the game.”
The lack of winning a playoff series didn’t necessarily damage Walker’s reputation because he played on barely above-average teams, but it’s definitely a relief that he no longer has deal with that stigma. And he has been able to accomplish one of his goals so far in Boston.
“It’s a good feeling man, not having to carry the load the whole time like I had to do in Charlotte, especially down the stretch when games get tough,” he said. “Teams come and double-team me and it’s really hard for teams to do that now just because of the talent level we have on this team.”