Celtics All-Stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have both scuffled through quiet offensive stretches recently. But coach Brad Stevens believes the secret to truly unlocking this group’s powers rests elsewhere.
“I think we’ve got to do a better job as a team of helping Kemba [Walker],” Stevens said. “And I’ve said that several times this year. I think that it’s really important that we put him in a position to have success and play to his strengths, and I think he does a great job. He’s so unselfish that he will defer, but we need him to be the guy that he can be. Scoring, keeping defenses on their heels with actions for him and secondary actions for him, or when a play breaks down, getting the ball on the second side is really important.”
Walker missed the first 11 games of this season because of a strengthening program for his left knee and he initially struggled when he returned in January. It is no coincidence that Boston went 1-5 in his first six games. And it is also no coincidence that the team results have been positive when he has thrived. Boston is 7-2 when Walker scores more than 20 points.
Walker had powerful performances in recent wins over the Pacers and Clippers and took 19 shots in each of those games. But over the last two contests, including Thursday’s loss to the Nets, he averaged just 11.5 field-goal attempts.
“I think I can hunt shots a little more,” Walker said. “I think watching film of some of the games, I think I turned down a few shots, a few opportunities, spot-ups. I could take some more spot-ups when my guys give me the basketball. So, yeah, I think I’ve just got to hunt shots a little more, be a little bit more aggressive.”
Tatum and Brown have the Celtics’ highest usage rates, at 29.4 and 29.3 percent, respectively. Walker is third at 26.9 percent. Whether intentional or not, there had been an uptick recently, with Walker registering a team-high 25.9 percent usage rate over the four-game winning streak Boston took into the All-Star break. But that rate dipped to just 16.7 in Thursday’s loss to the Nets, the fifth highest on the team that night.
When Boston is at its best, the ball is moving and players are cutting and there are openings created for players such as Walker to shine. But there have been times this year when isolation plays by Tatum and Brown have created some clutter elsewhere. Walker’s assist percentage—the percentage of the team’s assists a player registers while on the floor—is 22.9 percent, a career low.
Nevertheless, Tatum and Brown are both elite offensive talents, and that is part of the conundrum for Walker.
“When I’m out there, I’m just trying to get the ball moving, just play at the same level, try to let everybody touch the basketball,” he said. “So, yeah, sometimes it can be a tough balance, especially when other guys really have it going. I’ve just got to find a way to be aggressive, to take the shots that I need to take.”
Walker is averaging 18.1 points per game, his lowest mark since his 2014-15 season with the Hornets. His playing time will remain a bit limited as the Celtics proceed cautiously with his left knee, and he is still not expected to play in games on consecutive nights. But when he is on the floor, his impact will be an essential part of the Celtics’ success over the second half of this season.