Merely one week ago, February 25, what was already a cold, dark season for the Boston Celtics threatened to get even bleaker.
The Celtics had just dropped three in a row: First to New Orleans after blowing a 24-point lead, then to Dallas on a Luka Doncic buzzer-beater, and two days later they “quit” in a 127-112 blowout loss to the Hawks. With four games remaining before the All-Star break — including one against the bizarrely red-hot Wizards and another against the powerhouse Clippers — the Celtics were in 10th place in the East and on the precipice of dropping even further.
Lo and behold, what a difference a week makes. The Celtics won all four games and now, entering the break, are revitalized and confident and all alone at number four in the East. The clouds have broken and sweet sunshine is pouring through.
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But for some, including Boston president of basketball operations Danny Ainge, streaks of light were evident well before the winning streak, particularly in the play of point guard Kemba Walker.
“I think Kemba has looked better for quite a while,” said Ainge during his weekly interview with 98.5 The Sports Hub’s Toucher & Rich. “He had a couple bad shooting games in these last few weeks, but he has looked better all through that stretch. He just didn’t make shots for a couple games.”
Burning the Midnight Oil
Making shots had indeed been a problem for Walker. Following offseason knee surgery, the 10-year veteran was forced to start the season late, and he showed every ounce of rust through his first 11 games back. His 15.5 points and 34.8% from the field were far below his career averages of 19.3 and 41.8%. Moreover, Walker’s general lack of burst gave rise to fears that his best days were behind him.
But over the last nine games, Walker has regained the form and explosiveness that made him a four-time All-Star. In that span he’s shot 43.1% from the field, 39.5% from three and his points have risen to 22.0.
His new-found effectiveness has forced defenses to guard him tighter around the perimeter, thereby opening up driving lanes and allowing more space for his teammates coming off the pick-and-roll. Walker has dished out an average of 6.5 assists over the last four games, often finding the freakishly-athletic Robert Williams for alley-oop dunks or Daniel Theis for wide-open looks.
Ainge attributes Walker’s re-emergence to good old-fashioned hard work and to his dedication even during off hours. “You guys would be really amazed and impressed by Kemba and how hard he works at getting his body right,” Ainge told Toucher & Rich.
“It’s amazing. The other night we had this big win and he played a great game, and as I’m leaving the arena I walked back in there and he’s working with our strength coaches and just really working hard, lifting. That’s a very common occurrence to see Kemba in that situation. He’s just worked really really hard to get his body right and it’s paying off for him. It’s exciting to see.”
Leadership On and Off the Court
Walker hasn’t played in the second game of a back-to-back all season, and Ainge was asked if that might change given the 30-year-old’s return to full strength.
“Time will tell on that. We’re not in any rush,” responded Ainge. “The formula that’s going on right now is working, so we don’t really wanna mess with that. Kemba’s health and getting his body right and still being able to help our team, it’s been working right now for Kemba and the team. So I’m ok with how it’s going now.”
According to teammates, helping the team is something Walker does both on and off the court and they couldn’t be more pleased with his return to excellence.
“Now that he’s performing, doing his thing, we’re all happy for him,” said forward Grant Williams, who had 17 points off the bench in Boston’s 132-125 win over the Toronto Raptors Thursday evening. Williams has seen the court sparingly over the last 10 games, and he credits Walker with keeping his spirits high and keeping him focused despite the lack of playing time.
“As a leader, he’s been very communicative [while I’ve been] out of the rotation, telling me to keep my head up and stay engaged, stay ready, [that my] time will come,” said Williams. “Same with the other guys, he’s been there consoling. As a person, just one of the best people I’ve ever met in my life. Thankful to have him around.”