Twenty-one months ago, Kemba Walker dropped a career high 60 points on the Philadelphia 76ers, so it would be a bit shortsighted to suggest that Walker has any sort of a Philly problem.
But here’s the reality from Walker’s first season in Boston: In three games against the Sixers, Walker shot a mere 37.3 percent overall. He averaged 22.3 points but on 19.7 shots per game. The Celtics owned a team-worst net rating of minus-17.7 during Walker’s 103 minutes of floor time against Philadelphia, a span in which the Celtics were outscored by a total of 34 points. Boston went 0-3 in those games.
While Walker’s performance during seeding games eased concerns about the balky left knee that hindered him before the 2019-20 season paused, one of the big questions for Boston entering a first-round series against the 76ers is whether Walker can play to his All-Star standards and spearhead Boston’s offense against a team that often flustered the Celtics with its size and length this season.
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Walker is vital to Boston’s offensive success. The Celtics posted a team-best offensive rating of 115.2 this season when Walker was on the court and that dipped to 109.4 when he was on the bench.
As much as Walker passed the eyeball test inside the bubble, looking spry and swift, the team’s starters didn’t put up their typically glossy offensive numbers. Given the way the Sixers can make things difficult on the defensive end, it’s crucial that Walker has that first unit firing on all cylinders in the postseason.
That starts with Walker being able to create his own offense.
The 76ers will deploy some of their bigger guards against Walker, including 6-foot-5 Josh Richardson, who had nearly three times as many matchup minutes against Walker as the now-sidelined Ben Simmons did during the regular season. Walker can also expect a healthy dose of rookie reserve Matisse Thybulle, another 6-foot-5 wing who made things particularly difficult on him.
The Richardson-Thybulle combo accounted for a total of 21 minutes of matchup time over three games and limited Walker to 27 points on 34.7 percent shooting (8 of 23 overall) including just 28.6 percent (4 of 14) beyond the 3-point arc, per the NBA’s matchup tracking. What’s more, Walker had more turnovers (five) than assists (four) against those defenders. Thybulle also blocked Walker's shot four times and his length can really disrupt the smaller guard out past the 3-point line.
The Sixers’ size simply makes everything a little bit more difficult for Walker. They can fight over screens and still contest pull-up jumper and they can close out to the 3-point line with a long arm extended as he rises. Walker made just 9 of 28 above-the-break 3-pointers against Philadelphia, a spot where he shot 38.8 percent against all other teams.
But where the Sixers can really make things tough on Walker is when he tries to score near the basket. Walker connected on just 2 of 8 shots in the restricted area this season against Philadelphia, and went 3 of 9 from inside the paint. Whether it’s Joel Embiid or Al Horford, or a combination of both, the Sixers will scramble to help whenever Walker attacks off the pick-and-roll.
So, what does Walker need to do to thrive against the Sixers’ size? Rewinding to that 60-point outburst in November 2018 offers some clues, especially considering he had almost the same number of field goals that night (21) as he did this entire season against Philly (22).
Even with Jimmy Butler hounding him for much of the night, Walker was able to attack the basket and finish through contact. He was 9 of 13 at the rim, often charging off screens beyond the 3-point arc and getting to the rim before Embiid could even arrive with help. He didn’t get rattled when some early layups didn’t fall and used body control to muscle home tough finishes. He pulled up in the mid-range when Embiid sank towards the hoop.
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If the Sixers are going to have success in this series, they’re going to have to muddy up the game. They’re going to have to turn them into rock fights. They’re going to have to get physical and try to make Boston uncomfortable.
The Celtics have to counter with ball movement and not settle for perimeter looks. It’s on Walker to keep attacking in the pick-and-roll and try to spray the ball through the labyrinth of long arms to get teammates quality looks.
If Walker has Boston’s offense clicking, it’s going to put an exceptional amount of pressure on the Sixers to match that offensive output, something that won’t be easy with their lack of shooting and the absence of Simmons.
So much of the Celtics’ offense is predicated on Walker’s play. It eases the burden on Jayson Tatum and creates even more opportunities for Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward. But it starts with Walker.
He doesn’t need to have monster nights like that 60-point outburst in 2018 (heck, the Hornets lost that game) but he needs to play with the same confidence and continually put pressure on the Sixers’ defense.