How red-hot Kemba Walker got his groove back for Boston Celtics

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Chris Forsberg
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Forsberg: How Kemba got his groove back for Celtics originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

Kemba Walker is older, he is wiser. And, while he may not rush to admit it, the subtle changes he’s made to his offensive game over the past three weeks are a primary reason for Boston’s surge that includes winning eight of the last nine games Walker has played.

Health has undoubtedly aided Walker, who looks about as close to 100 percent as he has since knee woes first flared in January 2020. But since the start of this month, Walker has embraced giving the game what it needs, often downshifting his usage rate and throttling up his playmaking to deliver a high-efficiency output that has allowed the Celtics maximize his fit alongside Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.

There are nights, however, like Thursday when, with Brown sidelined by shoulder bursitis and Tatum in a rare shooting funk, Walker can turn back the clock and shoulder the scoring load.

Walker matched a season-high by scoring 32 points on 11-of-17 shooting over 37 minutes in a 99-86 triumph over a Phoenix team making a push for the NBA’s best record. 

"I was just taking the shots available to me, making the plays available to me,” shrugged Walker. "Whatever the defense gave me, I tried to respond to that. Some shots went in.”

A 3-point shot that has defied him for much of the year was more cooperative on Thursday night. But the real change for Walker has been his general shot selection. After routinely getting swatted at the rim early in his return this season, Walker now leads all point guards in field goal percentage at the rim (71 percent). He doesn’t force anything and is content to kick the ball out to shooters if a layup isn’t there (and he can still produce the circus finish when wandering into the trees). 

Bucket-by-Bucket: Kemba ties season-high with 32 pts in big win vs the Suns

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Walker is also hunting better perimeter shots. Once allergic to the corner, including only eight 3-point attempts from that spot through his first 29 games this season, Walker is growing more willing to slide to that spot and has been rewarded by making 4 of 9 corner 3s in April.

Better shot selection. More ball security. An increased focus on playmaking. You can see the effect of these subtle changes in Walker’s month-over-month splits.

HIGH-EFFICIENCY WALKER

Month

G

Off Rtg

Def Rtg

Net Rtg

USG%

AST%

TS%

January

6

106.4

114.4

-8

28.6

26

48.2

February

12

110.8

107.7

3.2

27.5

22.7

54.1

March

11

116.4

113.1

3.3

23.7

21.5

54.9

April

9

118.5

107.9

10.6

21.9

27.2

59.5

His offensive output wasn’t even the best part of Walker’s night against the Suns. He took three bone-rattling charges from Devin Booker, helping to foul out Phoenix’s best offensive threat before he could ever get cooking. The Suns were hunting Walker early but Boston held one of league’s top offenses to their second-lowest scoring output of the season.

Walker vaulted to the top of the NBA’s charge-taking leaderboard, where he’s tied with three others (Blake Griffin, Kyle Lowry, and Montrezl Harrell) with 19 charges drawn this season. Despite the time he missed and still sitting out back-to-backs, there is a very real chance that Walker will top the league in a category that he’s routinely lingered near the top.

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“It's just me letting guys know that, if I can take them, we all can take them,” said Walker. "That's really it. It's about sacrifice. It's about jumping in front of a guy, getting your body up to get the actual possession for your teammates. I want to win and plays like that shows it. Just trying to lead by example.”

Everything about Walker’s game lately shows how much he wants to win. Talented teams need players to sacrifice for the benefit of the group and Walker is doing that. All while putting in the work outside of games to ensure his knee is healthy. Danny Ainge has noted multiple times recently that Walker routinely puts in long sessions in the weight room after games to further strengthen his knee.

Walker is emphatic his knee is better. "My knee is feeling good. It's not an issue. There ain't much else to say,” he declared during his walk-off interview Thursday night. He admitted it’s tough to still sit out the second night of back-to-backs, especially in instances like Friday night when the Celtics have a showdown with the Nets.

But this stretch has shown how important it is for the Celtics to have a health Walker in the postseason. This high-efficiency Walker increases Boston’s ceiling and gives them a chance to make noise regardless of the team’s playoff seeding.

Walker heard a lot of slander early in his return. There were questions — and they won’t go away just because of this good stretch — about his long-term fit alongside the Jays. But his last nine games have shown just how he can still be super impactful. 

This older, wiser Kemba Walker is exactly what the Celtics need to get the most out of the young players he’s been tasked with leading.