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NEW YORK — It was a rare occurrence to see Kemba Walker cheering on his teammates in the fourth quarter Sunday as opposed to dodging defenders, darting in and out of the lane and searching for the smallest opening to carry the Charlotte Hornets to victory.
So he relished sitting and icing his knees as the Hornets salted away a win over the New York Knicks to keep the Hornets in early playoff position. Only LeBron James and Jimmy Butler have produced more in fourth quarters this season, and they have the benefit of being taller than six feet on a good day.
Walker wears the burden without complaint, but acknowledges the challenges he faces nightly.
“I wouldn’t say perfect, but I do have to play well for my team to win,” Walker told Yahoo Sports after the Hornets’ 119-107 win.
“I take that responsibility seriously. I want to play well anyways. Of course, it’s gonna be difficult.”
One can argue that of all the top point guards, Walker has more on him than any other. Not to say he’s better than Stephen Curry or Russell Westbrook or even Damian Lillard, but Walker doesn’t have a co-star to lean on — hence the heavy usage and the fact that he averages more in the fourth quarter during losses (8.5 points) than wins (7.3).
Hornets coach James Borrego has talked about finding ways to get Walker more help to keep his body upright and fresh for the stretch run. But Walker doesn’t seem to mind the responsibility.
“Nah, I’ve been playing that way for years,” Walker said. “High school, college. I’ve been getting used. I love it. I love this game. I work hard to play big minutes, to be used the way I’m used. Use me.”
It’s been a convenient storyline to say Walker’s game has taken a leap this season, and certainly plenty of advanced metrics support that belief. He started the season with a 41-point explosion vs. Milwaukee, and against Philadelphia and Boston in mid-November scored 60 and 43, respectively.
His scoring has dipped slightly in December, but he’s still averaging 25.8 points and a career-high 6.2 assists.
It’s the perfect time for a player to be approaching unrestricted free agency, and short of Kyrie Irving’s eventual opt-out, Walker will be many teams’ top priority.
But the way Walker sees it, the masses have just been late to the party.
He’s always considered himself among the elite. Walker doesn’t mind the attention now, but he doesn’t want it overshadowing how good he’s been since entering the league in 2011.
“I’ve been doing this. Of course, my points are higher, but that’s really it,” Walker said. “The way I’m playing, I’ve been playing like this the last couple years.”
He’s aware of who’s ranked among the best and where he fits, so he does bring some extra juice for those considered the cream of the crop.
“I’m a competitor, for sure,” Walker said. “I respect those guys, but when I play against them, I try my best to play well and go at them, of course. I’m just focused on winning games. That’s my thing. I’m trying to win and get to the playoffs.”
Andre Drummond not taking the bait
The third and final Andre Drummond-Joel Embiid matchup of the season didn’t feature any flagrant flops or taunting gestures, as even the league’s resident troll was relatively demure in the Philadelphia 76ers’ 116-102 win over the Detroit Pistons at Wells Fargo Center on Monday.
The Pistons’ Blake Griffin rested and the 76ers’ Jimmy Butler exited after playing just nine minutes because of a groin injury.
Detroit was already short-handed even before Griffin was scratched, so it should’ve been a prime opportunity for two of the best bigs in the league. But Drummond didn’t take any of Embiid’s bait, even though he hardly offered any.
Drummond remembers being a teenage rookie and having to psych himself up for games. In this instance, he had to take the reverse approach.
“Gotta calm down a bit,” Drummond told Yahoo Sports. “It depends on who you’re playing against. A guy like [Embiid], it’s a show. He puts on a show for everybody. You can’t get caught up into the antics.”
Embiid scored 24 with eight rebounds, while Drummond tallied 21 with 17 boards. The rivalry seemed to start with some mutual respect once Embiid was healthy enough to play, but then Embiid started to troll Drummond — like he does virtually everybody.
This is a sport of drama and ego, and at the league’s most physical position, Drummond felt compelled to oblige with some of the nonsense.
“You know, it brings out your competitive edge when someone’s talking trash, consistently, over and over again,” Drummond said. “It’s gonna wake you up eventually, like, ‘Damn, I need to say something back or do something.’”
Drummond admitted that aspect took him out of his comfort zone.
“I did a really bad job of feeding into that,” he said. “That’s not who I am. So I can’t really get into that. The last couple games I’ve left it alone and didn’t get into it.”
The turning point, he said, was getting ejected in Detroit in late October when Embiid embellished contact from a Drummond elbow.
“After that, I said there’s no reason for me to fight at all,” Drummond said. “After the ejection, I already know what kind of guy he is. Everything is for the crowd. He does all the stuff. I’m not the guy to get into that stuff. I gotta play this dude for the next decade, so it’s no point in getting riled up in one game.”
And once again, maturity and good judgment prevail. Speaking of maturity, someone needs to get Embiid in line about his “touches.”
Talking the talk
“Can’t doubt things when you’re Swaggy P. I still gotta be swaggy at the end of the day.”
— Nick Young to the Denver Post
Young was picked up by the Nuggets as a free agent using the injury hardship exception. Young, 33, was sitting on the outside looking in and risked being out of the NBA after a successful stint with the Golden State Warriors last season.
Never change, Swaggy. Never.
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