There’s a notion that the Celtics have benefited from hard times and hard lessons Kemba Walker endured during the first eight seasons of his NBA career.
I suppose that is true, in a secondary sense. He has a genuine and unwavering team-first attitude that is scarce in a player of his individual accomplishment, going back to his days as the driving force of the University of Connecticut’s 2011 men’s basketball national title.
But it is not all that is true about a player and person who has been a perfect fit with the Celtics in ways that matter much more than his points-per-game average or shot-making skill.
The humbled-by-hard-times narrative sells Walker’s character short to some degree. This is who he has been, all along, and the Celtics are lucky he became available and chose to come here.
It’s a remarkable sea change from last year, when they had to deal with a player who had slightly more talent and poisonously detrimental approach. The name escapes me.
Sure, it was satisfying to see Walker — who spent the first eight seasons of his career carrying the perennially mismanaged Charlotte Hornets on his slight shoulders — advance to the second round of the playoffs for the first time in his career, and during his first season as a Celtic.
He’d made the playoffs just twice before this year. In the immediate moments after the Celtics’ Game 4 win Sunday, which clinched a sweep over a Sixers team that carries itself an awful lot like last year’s dysfunctional Celtics, it was a pleasure to see the upbeat Walker so happy to achieve something that had eluded him in his decorated career, even if it is a relatively modest achievement in the big picture.
Walker came to the Celtics on a max contract in the offseason, hungry for a chance to win and, that notion goes, humbled by the losing in Charlotte despite his best efforts.
There’s no doubt he was rejuvenated by having a legitimate chance to play deep into the playoffs. He’s happy, and man, he earned it.
But this is not someone who ever needed to be humbled. Walker’s humility has always been intact, and I have little doubt that he would have remained the same likable person he was in Storrs even if he had found more team success in Charlotte.
The Celtics haven’t so much benefited from those rough lessons he learned in those eight years on NBA purgatory as they have from Kemba simply being Kemba. It has been an absolute joy this season — and it carried over to the Sixers series — to watch his approach to playing with budding stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
Tatum is already an A-plus NBA scorer, and he’s on his way to All-NBA status. Part of the growth process for a player of Tatum’s magnitude includes taking some ill-advised shots, and figuring out efficient ways to deploy his considerable powers. Sometimes there’s some young Kobe in his game, and sometimes there’s some peak Carmelo that will drive you nuts, where you know the ball is stopping when it gets to him.
This would rub players of Walker’s accomplishment and seniority the wrong way from time to time, if not more often. But how does Walker handle it? He defers to Tatum often, encourages and praises him endlessly, and backs all of this up with his go-get-‘em, that-shot-will-fall-next-time body language on the court. He’s his biggest cheerleader, excluding perhaps Tatum’s son Deuce, and I’m convinced Walker’s selflessness has been a significant factor in Tatum’s huge leap forward this season.
To a smaller degree, it also applies to Walker’s connection with Brown, an extremely well-rounded player who keeps getting better at every aspect of the game. Walker doesn’t just let the kids seize the stage; he’s in the front row, cheering for them the loudest. We knew Walker was a wonderful player. It’s been a true pleasure to watch how he carries himself as a teammate.
Walker is an elite player and feels no need to constantly prove it. If someone else is hot, he’s more than cool with the supporting role. But when they need him to take over or turn it on, he’s always ready. He scored a team-high 32 points during Sunday’s clincher, but I thought his most impressive performance in a series in which he averaged 24.3 points per game came in Game 3.
Tatum struggled for much of that game, finishing with 15 points, and so Walker quietly took command, scoring 24 points and adding 8 rebounds and 4 assists in the 102-94 win. The Celtics closed that game with a 10-0 run, with one of the defining plays a Walker jumper in which he had little trouble shaking old friend Al Horford.
The Celtics’ prudence with Walker’s minutes before the playoff began is paying off now. He’s playing like his troublesome knee is healthy, using his waterbug quickness to get to pretty much any spot on the court he wanted against the Sixers.
The defending champion Raptors will be a tougher test in Round 2. That team deserves endless respect, and the Celtics know it. But with a healthy Walker integrating so well with Tatum and Brown — and did I mention how much I love how his skill-set complements Marcus Smart’s? — the Celtics have something that Walker never did in Charlotte: A chance to win big.
It was never Walker’s fault that the Hornets came up short. But it is his talent and selflessness that are crucial in allowing the Celtics to dream big right now.
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