This is an ode to Kemba Walker’s defense.
Yes, Walker was outstanding, offensively, during Sunday’s Game 1 of an Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Toronto Raptors. He scored 18 points on 6-of-11 shooting, dished out a postseason-high 10 assists while keying the Celtics’ fine ball movement, and finished with an offensive rating of 121.4 (second best on the team behind only future Hall of Famer Robert Williams at 122.7).
But here’s one play from Walker that made us immediately rewind our DVRs:
Early in the fourth quarter with the Celtics up 18 and trying to snuff out the Raptors’ final charge, Walker threw the ball away trying to find Daniel Theis cutting to the basket. Pascal Siakam, with a full head of steam, came charging in transition and Walker could have been forgiven if he elected to backpedal straight out of the camera shot.
Instead, Walker did what he so often does: He waited to the last possible instant, set his highliter-bright sneakers inside the paint, and drew a charge. And this wasn’t one of those, “Oh, he brushed up against me and I sold the flop” charge. Walker absorbed one of Siakam’s elbow’s straight to the kisser and went sailing about 12 feet before coming to rest beyond the baseline.
We’ve seen Marcus Smart do that sort of thing enough around here to appreciate someone putting their body in harm’s way for the sake of a defensive stop. But we never appreciated just how hard Walker works on the defensive end until we saw him up close this season.
The Celtics deployed Walker as the primary defender on Fred VanVleet Sunday and watched VanVleet clang his way to 11 points on 3-of-16 shooting while missing nine of the 11 3-pointers he attempted. Walker set a tone from the game’s opening possession, chasing VanVleet on a give-and-go handoff with Siakam, and forcing a miss near the rim.
Walker gamely ran through about 1,000 screens Sunday simply trying to contest VanVleet’s shots. Maybe it was just a bad shooting night for the Toronto guard after a long and emotional layoff. But after shooting 56 percent beyond the 3-point arc in Round 1, Walker helped limit him to 2-of-11 shooting from distance in Game 1. And the NBA's hustle stats credited Walker with contesting five shots (tied for the most among any non-big on the Celtics).
Walker was also credited with a team-high three deflections and had a steal. The Celtics posted a defensive rating of 85.7 — or nearly 5 points lower than their already sterling 90.4 for the game — during Walker’s 32 minutes of floor time. Hone in on the 30 minutes that Walker and VanVleet shared the court and that number was a mere 87.9.
Just how good was Walker’s defense on Sunday? The NBA’s tracking data shows the Raptors registered just 4 points on 2-of-12 shooting with four turnovers when Walker was the primary defender. VanVleet was scoreless against Walker in a game-high six minutes of matchup time and VanVleet missed all five shots he took including a trio of 3-pointers.
Which is our longwinded way of saying that Walker played a spectacular two-way game on Sunday. Even after he seemed to tweak his injured left knee trying to defend another Siakam drive late in the second quarter. Celtics fans held their breath for an entire TV timeout after Walker could be seen limping to the huddle. A few minutes later, Walker drilled a 26-footer at the halftime buzzer to send Boston into the break with a 17-point cushion and everyone exhaled a bit.
Walker has simply been exceptional in these playoffs. Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise given his long wait to actually compete for a title. But he’s playing his butt off on both ends.
Like any undersized point guard, he has defensive limitations and teams will try to pick on him at times. But he tries and he tries hard. That matters. If you’re sick of the part where we rewind to last year to accentuate this point then just skip ahead because here it goes. You can’t bring up how hard Walker tries without mentioning the defense at the point guard spot last year. Most notably, Kyrie Irving freelanced a bit too often in Round 2 against Milwaukee a year ago. Walker, for his part, isn’t actively seeking out Siakam unless it’s an emergency situation.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens has put Walker in position to be successful. He spent much of Round 1 defending Shake Milton, limiting him to 18 points on 6-of-14 shooting. Through five games, the NBA’s defensive tracking data has Walker allowing opponents 62 points on 21-of-59 shooting (35.6 percent) overall and 8-of-29 shooting (27.6 percent) beyond the 3-point arc.
We’re not saying Walker is about to bump Smart from Defensive Player of the Year consideration, but when that sort of defensive effort comes along with 23 points and 5 assists per game, it’s one heck of a package.
There are going to be nights in this series where VanVleet gets cooking. There might be times when it doesn’t matter how hard Walker is trying. But as the Celtics opened this series with a statement win, it felt important to spotlight how Walker is helping the Celtics beyond his offensive output.
And it hammers home just how much it means for Walker to finally be in position to compete for a crown. The Celtics need that sort of effort to truly contend.