Kemba Walker's streak of 190 straight appearances will come to an end. (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)
Charlotte Bobcats point guard Kemba Walker is expected to miss "10 to 14 days" with a second-degree sprain of his left ankle, the Bobcats announced Sunday. The third-year pro out of UConn suffered the injury during the third quarter of Charlotte's Saturday night matchup with the visiting Miami Heat:
The Bobcats held a seven-point lead over the Heat when Walker landed awkwardly, and hard, on the foot of Miami big man Chris Bosh during a drive to the basket. After his exit at the 7:55 mark of the third quarter, the Heat outscored Charlotte 47-32 en route to a 104-96 overtime win that extended Miami's unbeaten streak against the Bobcats to 15 straight meetings, with Charlotte's last victory over the Heat coming nearly four years ago.
Walker had scored six points on 1 for 7 shooting with eight assists, two steals and one turnover in 22 minutes before suffering the ankle sprain, and when he went out, things fell apart for the 'Cats. From Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer:
“We lost the heart-and-soul of this team,” center Al Jefferson said following the 104-96 overtime loss to the Miami Heat. “He’s our fight and we’re going to miss that."
The injury mars what has been, quiet as it's kept, a fairly strong season for Walker, who entered Monday's NBA action ranked fifth in the league in minutes played and as one of only eight players averaging at least 18 points, five assists and four rebounds per game this season, alongside the All-Star likes of LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Stephen Curry, John Wall, James Harden and Russell Westbrook. It also figures to be brutal for a Bobcats team that has dropped five of its last seven and 10 of its last 13, and has struggled to score all season — Charlotte ranks 27th among 30 NBA teams in points scored per possession, according to NBA.com's stat tool — but has been especially dreadful without Walker, their leading scorer (a career-best 18.7 points per game this season) and facilitator (five assists per game, plus 1.4 "secondary assists" per contest, tied for 16th-most in the NBA, according to NBA.com's SportVU player-tracking data).
Charlotte's offense hasn't exactly been lighting the world on fire with Walker in the mix; the Bobcats' 99.6-per-100 mark in his minutes would slot in just between the 22nd-ranked Los Angeles Lakers offense and the 23rd-ranked Utah Jazz outfit over the course of the full season. In the 537 minutes they've played without Walker on the floor, though, they've scored at a dismal rate (92.5 points-per-100) that would rank far, far below even the Milwaukee Bucks' league-worst unit. The Bobcats' already not-so-hot team field goal and 3-point percentages go down without Walker on the floor, and head coach Steve Clifford relies heavily on Walker's advancing talents as an isolation scorer (1.07 points per one-on-one play used, seventh-best in the league this season, according to Synergy Sports Technology's game-charting data) and his gift for ball security (Charlotte's turnover percentage goes from best-in-the-league with Walker at the helm to bottom-six without him) to make the yeoman's work of the Bobcats' top-10 defense stand up and help scratch out just enough points to have a chance to win; losing him for somewhere between five and eight games, especially with a West Coast swing looming, could prove harmful to Charlotte's chances of staying within hailing distance of the No. 8 seed in the East.
With Walker sidelined, Clifford will turn to backup point guard Ramon Sessions and third-stringer Jannero Pargo to hold down the fort. Sessions has earned praise for his knack for getting to the charity stripe, averaging at least seven free-throw attempts per 36 minutes in each of his two seasons in Charlotte; that talent could prove critical in creating free points for the struggling Charlotte offense, especially considering Sessions lags pretty significantly behind Walker as a floor-spacer (he's shooting 20.4 percent from 3-point range this year, compared to Walker's roughly-league-average 35.5 percent).
The bigger issue, though, could be how well the point guards pair with offensive centerpiece Jefferson. He and Walker had seemed to be developing a bit of rhythm together after early-season injuries kept Big Al off the block, with 47 of Jefferson's 260 made field goals coming off direct assists from Walker this season, making Kemba far and away the top feeder for the Bobcats' high-scoring big man. Sessions, on the other hand, has accounted for just 16 of Big Al's buckets, and lineups featuring the two of them have performed a tick worse offensively (101.1 points per 100 possessions) than the Walker-Jefferson combo (102.3 points-per-100), according to NBA.com's lineup data. (Pargo, for his part, has seen just 35 total minutes this season, sharing the court with Big Al for only one of them.)
If Jefferson can lift the offense on his broad shoulders for the next two weeks, the 'Cats (who enter Monday one game behind the Brooklyn Nets for the eighth seed) could avoid falling too far behind in the rough and ragged chase for a postseason slot. If he can't, though, losing Walker for the first time in his NBA career could wind up costing Charlotte an awful lot more.
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