Celtics Insider

Blakely: It's Kemba Walker's turn to step up

Celtics Insider

It was only fitting that Kemba Walker was headed to the free throw line in the closing seconds of Game 7 against Toronto with a chance to ice the series-clinching win for Boston.

To see Walker put the game away, you can't help but pull for the guy knowing how his basketball odyssey took him from college basketball royalty as a NCAA champion at UConn, to what has been an NBA career in which he toiled in postseason purgatory for years in Charlotte.

Watching Walker rejoice in the closing moments of Boston's 92-87 win, his story feels like it should be seen with Sam Cook's classic, A Change is Gonna Come, being the soundtrack blasting out of the piped in arena crowd noise.

He’s living the basketball dream right now that so many have had before him; playing in the NBA, on a team that’s making a deep, playoff push towards winning a championship.

“It feels unreal,” Walker said. “It’s a great feeling.”

But here’s the thing.

As much as we all love Kemba and that good-guy image he has, Walker was not very good in the Celtics’ second-round series with Toronto.

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The five-time All-Star averaged 17.0 points per game which included him tallying a combined 19 points in Games 6 and 7.

He knows better than most that the success Boston has had in the playoffs getting to where they are now, has a lot to do with the guys around him.

 

Against the defending NBA champion Toronto Raptors, there was no question Walker’s supporting cast carried him and the team for long, extended stretches.

Now … it’s Kemba’s turn.

Because as much as the Miami Heat respect Walker’s game, don’t look for them to go with any Box-and-One defenses the way Toronto head coach Nick Nurse employed quite often.

Even if they did, it shouldn’t matter at this point.

Walker is fortunate that he’s in a situation where the weight of a franchise isn’t on him so that the team can be relatively competitive.

He has Jayson Tatum who is the best player on the team and blossoming into a legit top-10 talent.

Then there’s Jaylen Brown who should be getting some serious All-Star and All-NBA defense love next year when you consider how versatile he has shown himself to be in the postseason.

Both of those young guys have proven they can deliver big plays in the clutch, similar to what we’ve seen for years from Cardiac Kemba at UConn and later, during his time with the Charlotte Hornets.

But the stakes for Walker have never been as high as they are right now.

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He has an opportunity to do what so few have done in their basketball careers, which is to win an NCAA championship as well as an NBA one afterwards.

Of course there’s the not-so-small matter of taking down the Miami Heat followed by whoever emerges from the West.

But this is what you love about Kemba being in Boston at a time when deep playoff runs are no longer goals but an expected way of life.

They all treasure being among the teams still playing, but you know it means so much more to Kemba because it’s anything but a given for him to be in this position to compete at the highest level imaginable.

That’s why I anticipate we will see the absolute best playoff version of Kemba Walker next week.

He has the talent first and foremost to take over a game and in doing, a series.

Motivation for him and the rest of the players still ballin’ won’t be an issue or concern, either.

But what separates Walker from his teammates and for that matter most of the Heat players, is the fact that he has played well below his potential recently.

And with an extra day of rest before Boston and Miami go at it for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals on Tuesday, look for Walker to have a little more pep in his step, be a bit more “Kemba-like” than what we saw in the Toronto series.

Following the Game 7 win, Walker acknowledged that it was an emotional time for him.

“I’ve been in the playoffs two times before this,” Walker said. “So from that and the last time I was in the playoffs was five years ago, to be here in my first year (in Boston) and accomplish this, on to the Eastern Conference finals to play against a really good Miami team, we have a chance to advance past that. It’s big time. It’s a special feeling for me.”

 

As Walker pointed out, there’s room - lots of room - for this journey he and the Celtics are on to keep on going all the way towards Banner 18.

It will require the hands of many, including Walker who maybe more than any other Celtics player, is due for a monster series.