As the Celtics struggled to score against the Rockets on Saturday night, particularly in clutch situations on their home floor, it was abundantly clear that the team was missing point guard Kemba Walker as much as it had at all in the 13 games Walker has been out this season.
All the signs were there. Walker’s replacement in the starting five, Marcus Smart, who normally averages 11.4 shots per game, launched 22 shots, including 15 3-pointers. He made nine shots and only five of his 3s.
Smart is usually the Celtics’ sixth man but with him in the starting five, Grant Williams played the most minutes off the bench (14) and logged a whopping two points. As a unit, the bench scored four points on 1-for-4 shooting and tallied a total of 51 minutes. In an overtime game.
Three of the Celtics’ five starters played 44 or more minutes—Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Smart. Gordon Hayward played 41 minutes. Daniel Theis played 39. Little wonder that the team was spent at the end of overtime, failing to score in the final two-and-a-half minutes.
But there is, at last, good news when it comes to the Celtics’ depth woes: Walker practiced on Monday and, according to the team, will be available for “limited minutes” when Boston plays Brooklyn at TD Garden on Tuesday. That comes after center Robert Williams was cleared to play on Friday.
It’s not great that Jayson Tatum and Smart missed practice with illnesses (and could be out on Tuesday) but a case of the sniffles is not a long-term concern.
There are, at least, medium-term concerns with Walker, though. The Celtics are being cautious with his return.
“Kemba got through everything today,” coach Brad Stevens told reporters. “The plan, should he feel good tomorrow, would be that he would be limited.”
Walker’s All-Star Minutes Still an Issue
Wear-and-tear been one of the consequences of trying to play without Walker, the team’s starting point guard, since the All-Star break. Walker has had a balky left knee that swelled up after he played 29 minutes in the February 16 All-Star game in Chicago and needed to be drained once the team returned to post-break practice.
In a season in which Walker has had some injury issues, putting in that kind of time in an exhibition event—he could have taken it easy over that weekend—has become a source of controversy. Stevens was asked last week about Walker playing big minutes during the All-Star game.
“I don’t know,” Stevens told Zolak and Bertrand on 98.5 the Sports Hub. “I think the biggest thing — and I said this last week or whatever — if our medical staff and/or Kemba would have thought that there was any way that he would have come back with more soreness and more swelling, he wouldn’t have played. He wouldn’t have chosen to play. Like, he’s not going to do that.
“So I think it was an unfortunate deal that, you know, the swelling happened. That was kind of the difference in how his knee presented versus how it presented in the past. And it was pretty significant.”
Walker Struggled Even When Healthy
Walker, signed as a free agent this summer after the team lost both Kyrie Irving and Al Horford, has averaged 21.8 points, 5.0 assists, 4.1 rebounds and 1.0 steal per game this season. He is shooting 42.9 percent from the field and 38.8 percent from 3-point range.
He missed three games to start February with the knee problem but came back to play four games after that. The first three were all within the 28-30 minute range, but the fourth, an overtime win over the Clippers, saw Walker log 46 minutes of action.
He struggled through all four games, scoring 18.8 points on 32.8 percent shooting from the field.
While Stevens has downplayed the long-term effect of Walker’s injury, he has not been the same player lately. He is attacking the basket with less frequency than at any time in his career, taking just 4.1 shots per game in the restricted area according to NBA.com stats. He took 5.7 such shots last season.
In the last six games Walker has played, going back to January 28, he has taken only 3.5 shots per game in the restricted area. He is making only 35.0 percent of those shots. Before that, he was averaging 4.2 such shots and making 59.9 percent.
That’s an indication that he is lacking some confidence in his driving and finishing ability. That’s worth monitoring down the stretch of the Celtics’ season. Walker has had the past two weeks off and will return to the floor but the Celtics need him to play like a healthier version of himself heading into the playoffs.