Tomase: Kemba keeps acing what Kyrie failed as a Celtic


Kyrie Irving's Celtics low point wasn't his disgraceful capitulation vs. Milwaukee in last year's conference semifinals, because by then we already knew they were cooked and he was gone.

It actually came five months earlier in Orlando. You remember the play. Down two with a couple of seconds left, Gordon Hayward found Jayson Tatum curling off a pick and the second-year man missed a contested baseline fallaway at the buzzer.

A pouting Irving immediately rushed Hayward, arms outstretched in the universal symbol of, "You A-hole!" Irving wanted the ball inbounded to Al Horford before coming his way. It's a play the Celtics had run a year earlier for Isaiah Thomas to tie a game against the Grizzlies. Irving already looked agitated with head coach Brad Stevens coming out of that huddle. Kyrie clearly wanted the play to be about Kyrie.

Rather than support a teammate for making a split-second decision that set up one of the game's burgeoning young stars, Irving launched into one of those narcissistic postgame jeremiads that sweet Jesus no one misses, ranting about his young team's inexperience, need to learn, and repeated failure to meet the moment.

"It's not easy to be great," he noted, conveniently overlooking the run to Game 7 of the conference finals a year earlier without him, besides which, of course it wasn't easy -- you try achieving greatness when your best player spends the season hectoring and belittling the young talent around him. When Irving inevitably left for Brooklyn last summer, it wasn't a tragedy. It was a gift.

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Out went Irving and in came Kemba Walker, himself an All-Star, though not quite as talented or accomplished. While Walker brought experience, it wasn't exactly of the championship variety. Over eight seasons in Charlotte, his Hornets had only reached the playoffs twice, losing each time to the Heat in the first round.

If the 2019 Celtics were defined by Irving's scowl, they're now all about Walker's smile. It's relentlessly cheery, whether he's bemoaning a bad call or celebrating a teammate. And while watching the Celtics stave off the defending champion Raptors last week, it was hard to miss the difference between late-game Kemba and late-game Kyrie.

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In Game 3, right before Toronto's miracle win, Walker found Daniel Theis with a half-second left for the tie-breaking dunk. It was as beautifully unselfish a play as you'll see, Walker drawing four defenders like a bug magnet and then dropping a no-look bounce pass for the throwdown. It should've won the game, but OG Anunoby stuck a dagger at the buzzer.

That just set the stage for a classic seven-game slugfest. After Walker missed a potential game-winning layup in Game 6, he found himself with the ball in his hands again in the closing moments of Game 7 and the Celtics clinging to a two-point lead. Did he force a shot? Nope. Once again he drew multiple defenders, and once again he laid the ball off for a less heralded teammate, this time rookie Grant Williams, who was fouled after a bounce pass through the thickets somehow found his hands.

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And those two plays said everything. At pivotal moments in the playoffs, Walker didn't lecture his teammates, he trusted them. He didn't demand that they give him the damn ball, he put it on a tee for them. He didn't wave his hands while pleading for an explanation doomed to be unsatisfactory, he thrust them over his head in celebration.

As the Celtics prepare to open the Eastern Conference Finals against the Heat on Tuesday, Walker will be a primary target of Miami's defense, but he won't be alone. Walker himself has already declared Tatum a superstar, Jaylen Brown looks like an All-Star, Marcus Smart somehow finishes games with grass stains on his jersey, and Hayward is nearing a return.

The simple swap of Kyrie for Kemba has transformed the Celtics from odious quitters to lovable overachievers. It's a safe bet that before this run ends, Walker will find himself dribbling down the clock with the game on the line, and the beauty of whatever happens next is it won't be about him.