It was a frigid winter December night in Boston and the Celtics had just polished off another division opponent behind the spirited efforts of their rejuvenated wunderkinds, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
Two lockers over, Kemba Walker was beaming like a proud father. Boston’s prized free-agent acquisition, who managed to somehow transform the seemingly catastrophic defections of both Kyrie Irving and Al Horford into a blissful rebirth of positivity and light, had instantly become a trusted mentor to Tatum and Brown and predicted Hall of Fame careers for both.
“I’m just the gatekeeper for those guys,” he said, gesturing to the two young stars. “This is their team, and I’m fine with that.”
Marcus Smart, who overheard Walker’s comments, waved his hand dismissively. “Nah,” he said, pointing to Walker. “That ain’t right. We’re going to need that guy.”
Eight months later, in a playoff bubble in Florida, Walker provided a gentle reminder of his place among the Celtics’ hierarchy. On a night when those long and fluid deep 3s from Tatum suddenly clanged off the rim like cymbals gone horribly out of tune, it was Walker who maneuvered the team, kept it on course, tallied the necessary points in transition.
It was also Walker who took a key charge, ventured into the paint and corralled a team-high eight rebounds and knocked down the kind of shot that franchise players live for.
With the Celtics clinging to a two-point lead over the Philadelphia 76ers with 1:05 left to play, it was the former UConn guard who yearned for so long to return to this playoff stage, who valiantly fought through persistent knee pain that threatened to derail his first season in Boston, who found himself with the ball. Walker dribbled down, surveyed the floor, and took note of the switch that left him staring down the long, lanky 6-foot-10 frame of the former Celtic, Horford.
Walker, his dribble still in play, waited, hesitated, then expertly stepped back and nailed the jumper over Horford’s outstretched arm. Ballgame.
Kemba Walker puts the moves on Al Horford and knocks down a dagger step-back jumper in the waning moments of the fourth quarter of Game 3.
Out with the old. In with the new. The Celtics, up 3-0 in the series after their 102-94 victory Friday night, are one win away from advancing to the Eastern Conference semifinals, and their veteran leader has just put together consecutive games of 20-plus points for the first time in his playoff career.
“I’ve made that shot a lot,” said Walker, rocking his peach Air Jordan sweatshirt at the postgame podium. “It’s just another example of it. … I’m just happy I made it.”
Walker, 30, hasn’t had a sniff of the playoffs since 2016, and during that time when his Charlotte Hornets were (again) on the outside looking in, he retreated to the gym, fine-tuned his game and searched for the silver lining amid a new round of disappointing results.
Asked what he missed most during that time, he answered, “The big games, the intensity. It’s just a high level of basketball. The preparation, the game-by-game adjustments, that’s what I missed.
“I’m a winner. I want to play at the highest level, and I’m able to do that now.”
Like his predecessor Irving, Walker came to Boston with a reputation as a scorer but a subpar defender. He vowed to coach Brad Stevens he would buy into the team’s defensive schemes and change the narrative surrounding his shortcomings. After Game 3, Stevens applauded Walker’s defensive effort as loudly as he did the game-clinching jumper.
“He’s a fighter, a competitor, and he’s talked all year about wanting to win,” Stevens said. “[To do that] you gotta be great on both ends. He had multiple really good plays last game and he followed it up. He picked up the ball higher and it was good. I thought Philly played really well, they deserve a lot of credit, they played a really physical, hard-nosed, tough game. And Kemba and our other guys competed on the defensive end, I thought, all night.”
On a night when Tatum and Brown finished a combined 12-for-35 from the field, Walker’s steadying influence was a welcome development. He was having a monster season before his knee woes dampened his effectiveness, causing him to miss 10 games from January to March. Even so, his positivity remained constant and contagious.
“Kemba was who he has always been,” Tatum said. “He was the leader tonight; he carried us. He was special. That’s what we’re going to need, especially on certain nights when guys aren’t playing well.
“He’s obviously more than capable of carrying us to a win. That’s what he did tonight. We needed it. That was a big win for us.”
Walker took great pains to insist the Celtics haven’t won anything yet, that being up 3-0 means absolutely nothing. And yet, what the gatekeeper did on this night felt like much more than that.