Boston Celtics, NBA Playoffs

The joys of watching Kemba Walker thrive on a great team

Many great players never get the chance to be great as part of a great team. Watching Kemba Walker get that opportunity has been a delight.

There was a story in the Wall Street Journal on April 13 about Stephon Marbury and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. The unlikely duo was at the center of basketball’s response to a pandemic that would steal many months and millions of dollars from the NBA and the Chinese Basketball Association, where Marbury coaches the Beijing Royal Fighters. As the story goes, Marbury sent Silver an email three days prior to the NBA shutdown urging Silver to press pause before things got any worse. The warning was not heeded, but Marbury was proven right within the week as the NBA followed the CBA and shut down. While it was a strange hat for Marbury to wear — public health/basketball liaison — it also was the first time in a while that folks in many NBA circles had likely heard from Marbury in years.

Marbury went to China to sell sneakers and score points. That he did. In the CBA, Marbury was a perennial All-Star. An MVP. A champion. The sensational athlete who had blessed New York City with his talents as a teenager and maddeningly underachieved in the NBA found in the CBA an environment better suited for his dazzling skillset and celebrity. By the time he typed up the letter to Silver last spring, Marbury had retired from playing and begun coaching full-time. At age 43, the sun had set on Marbury’s challenging career.

Now the NBA is back, and the playoffs are flying by. The Boston Celtics survived a seven-game bout with Toronto to get back to the Eastern Conference Finals for the second time in three years, led by the deepest stable of talented perimeter players in the league. Jayson Tatum and Marcus Smart closed Game 7. Jaylen Brown seeps into every crevice of the game that Boston needs him to. But the most striking character is Kemba Walker.

Through 11 playoff games — which already matches the total Walker played in his eight seasons — he’s averaging 19.6 points and 5.3 assists per game on 45 percent shooting. Philadelphia had no answer for him in the first round, but Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet stymied him in the semis. He made more than half his shots just twice in seven games against the defending champs.

But Walker’s signature step-back move is back, and he’s back to defying physics. Nobody shrinks down to the ground on a dribble-drive like Walker. You can count on one hand the number of guys as small as he is who have built out a repertoire of finishing moves around the basket to make up for their diminutive stature. There’s just nobody quite like peak Kemba, and that’s the guy we’ve seen in the playoffs.

It wasn’t a given. Walker struggled with arthritic soreness in his knee throughout the spring and his status was a big question mark for Boston heading into the NBA restart. For someone who wiggles and dances like he does on the court, permanent joint damage in his knees could have been the beginning of the end, but so far, he seems to have evaded major repercussions.

Things could have gone very differently for Kemba Walker

Walker joined the Celtics to be in these moments. To experience greatness, or at least strive for it. That he is finally here, on the cusp of a Finals appearance, after the injury, after the shutdown and after Game 7, is incredible. Walker — or Cardiac Kemba as he was known then — introduced himself to basketball fans with a classic NCAA tournament performance, ethering the entire bracket on his way to a national championship. College games are open for guards to take over, and Walker became one of the first in recent history to lay the foundation for the month-long heat check NCAA title.

Do stuff like this often enough and you become a legend.

Walker entered the NBA and had to adjust immediately. Despite all those buzzer-beating jumpers, he wasn’t a great shooter. Gratuitous listed at 6-foot, he was smaller than just about every guy in the league. Never known for defense, the weakness became even more glaring. A Hornets franchise that shuffles its entire front office and coaching staff every few years did him few favors. To build around Walker, Charlotte spent money on the likes of Josh McRoberts, Nicolas Batum and Lance Stephenson over the years. As he rounded out his game, learned how to win and became an All-Star, it became clear Michael Jordan and the Hornets were not going to cut it.

To reach the pinnacle of his profession and maximize his potential, Walker at age 29 made the leap to a new franchise. Right away, he ingratiated himself in Boston, signing jerseys in the streets and flashing the trademark charm that earned him fans far and wide over the first decade he’d been in the spotlight. The Celtics had always needed a quick shot creator who could make threes. They cycled through point guards like Isaiah Thomas (too small and inconsistent) and Kyrie Irving (too mercurial and ball-dominant) until they found the glorious middle ground that is Walker, a player willing to sacrifice and good enough to sometimes not have to.

On this Celtics team, Walker is the dominant hand of a brilliant machine. The parts work in harmony but Walker is the freelance appendage that takes over when the brain is jammed. Brad Stevens runs a masterful system that brings the best out of his players as cutters, shooters and defenders, but Walker stepped in right away as a leader and elevated his teammates. He has undetectable ways of jerking the system awake when it needs a restart.

Walker’s assists are down because Boston’s roster is full of scorers who can do work in isolation, but he’s never fit better with the players around him. That’s clear when he rises for a perfectly timed pull-up three to buy the Celtics a bucket or when he demands a smoothly run offensive set to inject pace back into the offense. The same limitations on defense and in as a finisher didn’t dissolve when he put on a green jersey, but Walker is precisely what Boston needed. They’re now on the precipice of the breakthrough Thomas and Irving never delivered in large part because Walker struck a perfect balance in their role.

The UConn legend is bound for at least 15 playoff games in 2020 — a mark Marbury never reached. Despite playing with legends like Kevin Garnett and Penny Hardaway, it just didn’t happen. Even in an era that actually pleaded for high-volume perimeter scoring, Marbury was an outlier. He rarely cracked 45 percent from the field and didn’t play a lick of defense. He didn’t make his teammates better and couldn’t improve his decision-making. After bouncing around to many different teams, Marbury eventually realized the problem was him, and found a better situation to continue his career overseas.

He popped up again in what may be his last hurrah in his new role as forgotten highlight reel and CBA whisperer. Nobody has thought about him in years.

Walker came to Boston as a multi-time All-Star in search of a winning team. Was he better than Marbury? Probably. But it’s not just him. Try Baron Davis or Eric Bledsoe or Joe Johnson or Mark Jackson. Tantalizing players come and go constantly who peer into greatness and are blinded. Like many of them, Walker entered his 30s with an open question about his ability to adjust his game in the playoffs, make his teammates better, and win at the highest levels.

Through the first two rounds of this run, Walker has meshed beautifully with incredible teammates on a roster that needed him. The Celtics are one of the last four left in this bizarre season, but Walker has done what he came to do.

Rather than being lost to history like Marbury and so many others, Walker found a way to change and grow and collaborate, and in turn we get to watch one of the most entertaining players of his generation return to the big stage.

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