First, Joel Embiid went tumbling through the paint, his 7-foot-2 frame clumsily hitting the hardwood and, shortly after, poor Raul Neto luged through the charge circle on his back as if someone had unfurled an invisible slip and slide.
Both Sixers were sent sprawling trying to stay in front of Kemba Walker drives. The ankle snatching a firm reminder that for as much as everyone in Boston obsessed about Walker’s balky left knee in the month ramp to these bubble playoffs, he’s looked a whole lot like the All-Star Kemba we saw at the start of the season. Maybe even better.
Which is why you can make the case that Boston’s training staff deserves as much consideration for first-round MVP as Jayson Tatum.
A spry Walker helped the Celtics complete a four-game sweep of the Sixers on Sunday while scoring a team-high 32 points in a 110-106 triumph. Walker came off screens with a head of steam and wasn’t bashful about pulling up when the Sixers gave him space, or attacking the basket if they didn't. That aggressiveness was rewarded with 13 free throw attempts that contributed to his best scoring output of the series.
In the first round, Walker averaged 24.3 points, 4.3 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.8 blocks, and just 1 turnover over 32.8 minutes game. He shot nearly 50 percent from the floor, this despite struggling with his 3-point shot early (after going 1 for 10 in Games 1 and 2, he went 7 for 16 from distance in Games 3 and 4).
Give credit to Walker, who begrudgingly embraced a knee-strengthening rehab plan that limited him to one nine-minute cameo in scrimmage work and the team ramped him up slowly during seeding games. All with the hope that the Celtics could turn him loose in the postseason.
Still, the questions lingered: How would Walker hold up under the grind of high-intensity games every other day? Could he sustain the high level of play we saw in small glimpses at the start of this bubble adventure?
Turns out he held up just fine. And he didn’t just sustain a high level of play, he was pretty much the best version of Walker we’ve seen in green.
Walker had some of his finest moments on the defensive end. There was a stretch late in the first half of Sunday’s Game 4 where Walker got switched onto Al Horford and Joel Embiid on consecutive possessions and held up against post-up attempts. He competed hard, defensively, and was also there to help pester Embiid.
Celtics fans held their collective breaths when Walker spilled to the floor clutching at his left leg in pain after Embiid thrust out his posterior and toppled Walker as he tried to fight through a screen. It turned out he just got hit in the thigh. In fact, the only thing that hindered Walker, healthwise, in this series, was the upset stomach that forced him to miss a Boston film session on Sunday morning.
The knee held up just fine.
“I’ve said all along I felt great about our plan,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said after Sunday’s win. "Give a lot of credit to Kemba and a lot of credit to our trainers. They executed that plan. That’s not easy to do. And he didn’t like playing limited minutes building up. He didn’t like not practicing. But he got the knee stronger, he got ready to go for trying to be the best that we can be [at the start of the playoffs].”
Boston’s sweep of Philadelphia delivered Walker the first playoff series win of his NBA career. In fact, he's already won more playoff games in Boston (4) than he did in nine years in Charlotte (3).
"This is the reason I came to Boston, to be able to play in the playoffs and advance, play high-level basketball, so it feels good,” said Walker.
But the sweep is important, too, because it will allow Walker to get extended reset before the start of an Eastern Conference semifinal series. The Celtics can give him a few days to rest and strengthen that knee with hopes that he can continue his high level of play whenever the next round begins.
Or as Stevens bottom-lined it, "And I thought [Walker] was really good … he’ll have to continue to be really good.”
Walker was simply exceptional in Round 1. He rebounded well, knowing Boston’s bigs would be jousting with Embiid. He committed only four turnovers the entire series, an absurd number considering a usage rate of 26.9 (only Tatum was higher at 27.5).
Tatum was quite clearly Boston’s MVP in Round 1. He was a dominant 2-way force. But even he reveled in Walker’s joy in advancing.
"That’s a big reason why Kemba came here, he wanted to be a part of something special and he wanted to win,” said Tatum. “As happy as I am that we won, I’m even happier that he’s getting a chance to experience this. He’d never been out the first round. He’s been in the league for a very long time, so just to be able to help him get there and experience this together, it’s fun. And hopefully it’ll continue.”
If Walker plays the way he did in Round 1, and the knee holds up as it has, there’s no reason this playoff voyage can’t continue. In fact, it might be the key to the Celtics reaching their loftiest of goals.