So it came as little surprise that Walker, after hitting the two biggest shots of the game to lift Boston to a 102-99 victory over the Toronto Raptors in in Game 2 of their Eastern Conference Semifinal, was grinning from ear-to-ear inside The Field House in the NBA bubble at the Walt Disney World Resort.
In his ninth NBA season, Walker finds himself in the second round of the NBA playoffs for the first time — and is now two wins away from a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals.
“You know,” Walker said, when asked afterward why he celebrated the victory the way he did, with a slow lap around the court as he pumped his fist. “You know what I’ve been through. Everybody knows what I’ve been through … haven’t been in the second round.
“And, a lot of times in my career, in games like that, it probably would have been a blowout. But for me to have these guys, who can step up and just make huge plays the way they did, man, it’s special. And it’s a great feeling to know guys got my back like that. I just really appreciate my teammates.”
The “games like that” Walker was referring to was him going 2-for-14 through the first three quarters. During the first eight years of his career, when he was the sole force around which the Charlotte Hornets were built around, such a performance would be fatal to his team’s chances of winning.
Instead, Walker now finds himself surrounded by an ensemble that can pick him up in moments like that. For much of the game, it was Jayson Tatum, who finished with 34 points — including going a perfect 14-for-14 from the free throw line — to go with eight rebounds and six assists, that picked up the slack.
But when the fourth quarter began, Walker and Marcus Smart took over, scoring a combined 27 points on 9-for-10 shooting to outscore the Raptors by themselves and give the Celtics a commanding 2-0 lead in this best-of-seven series.
The fireworks began with Smart, Boston’s do-it-all guard, deciding to give his best attempt at embodying The Human Torch over the first few minutes of the fourth quarter, hitting five straight 3-pointers to allow Boston to completely erase Toronto’s 8-point lead to begin the fourth in a matter of moments.
Just to prove how hot he was, Smart’s final triple came with his legs flailing as he tried to draw a foul — which he did successfully — and then hit the ensuing free throw to give the Celtics back the lead.
“That’s just me,” Smart said, when asked where his confidence to go on a hot streak like that comes from. “Growing up I’ve always had confidence. That’s just what it is. I believe in myself. I always have and I always will.”
Smart finished the game 6-for-11 from 3-point range, and, coupled with his 5-for-9 showing in Game 1, is now 11-for-20 over the first two games of the series. It is an outburst reminiscent of Raptors guard Fred VanVleet‘s explosion in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Milwaukee Bucks — right down to Smart having gone 2-for-15 from 3-point range against Philadelphia in the prior round; last year, VanVleet shot 1-for-14 from behind the arc against the Sixers.
“That’s a pretty good comparison,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “I didn’t think of that but that’s a pretty good comparison. They obviously have a lot of firepower around and to have to have a wild-card, I mean, listen, he’s a great player and he’s a veteran who has been around forever.
“But he is kind of a wild card scorer for them and he’s had two huge games for them.”
Then, after Smart got the Celtics back into the game, Walker took them home. After struggling so mightily through those opening three quarters, Walker went a perfect 4-for-4 in the fourth — including hitting a 3-pointer on the left wing with 2:24 remaining to double Boston’s lead, and then a stepback jumper from the right elbow with 41.6 seconds to go that set the score where it would wind up at the end: Boston 102, Toronto 99.
Walker was the only player on the Celtics to make a field goal inside the final five minutes, and the only player to score at all inside the final three, allowing Boston to have just enough to survive and put a stranglehold on the series.
“I’ve missed so many shots in my life,” Walker said. “I have missed so many shots throughout my career. I’m never going to get down on myself. I’m going to find ways to help my teammates. I thought tonight, I thought I stayed solid defensively, which was most important.
“My teammates held it down. Smart came in, made some huge 3s, [Tatum] played well all game, a lot of guys had great contributions. And down the stretch, just staying confident.
“I work hard on my game. I thought I got great looks, and they weren’t falling. It happens to the best of us. I just stayed aggressive, and just stayed within myself.”
In the past, Walker had to do everything for his team to win. Now, he just needs to make plays when it matters. It’s a formula that Boston has utilized time and again so far in these playoffs — and is why they are now 6-0 to begin the postseason.
That’s why Walker is, for the first time in his NBA career, in the middle of a deep playoff run. And, with two more wins, the Celtics will be back in the Eastern Conference Finals for a third time in four years.
“We have to continue to play desperate,” Smart said. “Even though we’re up, we have to play like we’re down. We have to play games to win, not to lose. A lot of teams at this point, they play not to lose instead of just being who they are. For us, that’s getting up into guys, playing great defense, and moving the ball on the offensive end.”