As far as opening statements go, the one that Kemba Walker delivered before the game to Celtics fans was prosaic, pledging to go hard all year. It felt like the opening line of a first date, sincere but generic. But no one is going to remember Walker’s unremarkable roughly 20-second pre-game address. What they’re going to remember from his Celtics debut is the closing statement he offered in the fourth quarter when he changed his night and that of the Celtics with a burst of brilliance.
Walker let his game do the talking at TD Garden when it mattered most, and it spoke volumes about the type of player the Celtics have as they pick up the pieces of the post-Kyrie Irving era. Brad Stevens’s latest franchise point guard found his game in the fourth, scoring half of his 22 points to help the Celtics christen the parquet for 2019-20 with a 112-106 victory over the new-look, defending NBA champion Toronto Raptors on Friday night.
We got a glimpse of what both Walker and these Celtics could be. Resilient, resourceful, energetic, emotional, and fun. After Irving’s gloomy turn in Green, the Celtics are back to Brad Ball. They have a franchise frontman who is eager to embrace the Boston basketball experience. The good news is we haven’t seen the best of Walker, as he’s still getting comfortable, feeling his way through a new situation after eight seasons in Charlotte. But this was enough to project that Walker and the Celtics fit.
The post-Kawhi Leonard Raptors enjoyed their biggest lead of the night at 89-82 after another of what seemed like a parade of long 3-pointers, this one from Kyle Lowry with 9:47 left. Then Walker awakened from his slumber and started to put up numbers. He scored 7 straight Celtics points to cut the lead to 91-89. Up until that point, Walker had been in the background as Jaylen Brown (25 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists) and Jayson Tatum (25 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists) kept the Celtics afloat in a see-saw affair.
The Celtics unlocked Walker with high pick-and-roll actions, letting him choose his own direction and adventure. To start his scoring spree, Walker hit a foul line pull-up jumper. Then he drilled a pull-up 3-pointer off a pick that made it 89-87. Next was a hanging drive at the rim with 7:58 left that made it 91-89. Following a Robert Williams alley-oop, Walker used the high pick and roll again to create a baseline finish around Toronto’s OG Anunoby, answering a Lowry layup to pull Boston within 95-93.
But the best play he made was a gorgeous pick-and-roll bounce pass to rookie Grant Williams, providing the Celtics the lead (101-100) with 5:16 left. They wouldn’t trail again, although a dagger three from Gordon Hayward after a timeout later broke a 104-all tie. The Walker-to-Williams textbook pass was one of Kemba’s two assists on the night.
It was set up by a double-high pick by Tatum and Williams. The Celtics have featured that play for Walker because it was a staple from his days with the Charlotte Hornets.
“Yeah, I can’t just say enough about the people around me, the coaching staff, most importantly my teammates just really keeping me confident,” said Walker, who was 4 of 13 for 11 points in the first three quarters. “They kept talking to me throughout the game. They knew I wanted to play well. I wanted to make shots. I was struggling, but I can’t say enough about it. They kept me confident. I really just appreciate those guys for keeping me level-headed and keeping me confident and allowing me to be myself.”
Offense is not coming easily or consistently to Walker or the Celtics right now. After shooting, 36.7 percent on opening night, they shot 38.5 percent on Friday. They missed 15 of their first 18 3-point attempts before finishing a respectable 13 of 38. Offensive efficiency has been flickering and fleeting. It’s still the feeling-out process for the remade Celtics and their latest prolific point guard. But when it clicks like it did in the fourth quarter you can see the problems the Celtics will pose for teams with Walker, Brown, Tatum, and Hayward.
It didn’t look like Walker’s home debut was going to be much to write home about early. He missed his first six shots from the field, including a bunny of a putback off an offensive rebound of his miss. The basket appeared hermetically sealed for the UConn product. He got his first field goal on a nice feed from Grant Williams on a back-door cut, creating an uncontested layup for his first official points as a Celtic at TD Garden with 4:10 left in the first quarter.
But coming off a dismal 4-for-18 outing in his Celtics debut in Philadelphia on Wednesday, Walker was 1 for 9 at halftime with 4 points, 2 turnovers, and a minus-3 rating, as the Celtics led, 50-49.
“You could see that he was pressing early. He missed a bunch of shots that I think he will normally hit,” said Stevens. “Then when he starts getting going downhill . . . he just looked like he had an extra gear. He probably wasn’t thinking about it going in. He was just going to be Kemba Walker.
“That’s one of the things. He’s just going to get more used to it. We tried to stay in a couple of actions that he’s really used to late, and he just did a great job of reading of it and making the right play, whether it was a shot for him or somebody else.”
Walker, who averaged a career-high 25.6 points per game last season and has averaged more than 20 per game each of the four prior seasons, admitted he was relieved when he was finally able to hit the on switch offensively.
“I was so happy, like ‘about time.’ It was a struggle even from last game to tonight. Like I said, I just wanted to be myself,” he said. “These guys allowed me to. Coach Stevens, assistant coaches, everybody they were in my ear, telling me don’t worry about the misses, just keep being myself, keep getting the shots up. I thought I was taking some pretty good shots, just missing, you know, getting to my spots. A lot of the shots I missed were just kind of routine shots, so I think that’s why I kind of stayed confident as well.”
But it wasn’t just Walker’s offense that made an impression. It was his defense. He led the charge on charges.
With the Celtics up, 110-106, Walker got the ball in a shot-clock bailout situation. He drove into the lane, got swallowed up, and sent a feeble shot to nowhere. On the ensuing possession, he took a charge on Anunoby with 1:31 left.
Walker could have sealed the win with a nifty floater in the lane with 21 seconds left. It would have been the Hollywood ending, but he missed. It didn’t matter.
The New Guy had his first victory as a Celtic and a better sense of normalcy in his new surroundings.
He didn’t match Irving’s oratory or point output in his Brooklyn home debut, but he did get a win, unlike Kyrie.
It wasn’t what Walker said to Celtics fans that mattered. It was what he showed them.