Kemba Walker marvels at 21-year-old Jayson Tatum's big night for Celtics: 'That's special right there'

Kemba Walker marvels at 21-year-old Jayson Tatum's big night for Celtics: 'That's special right there'

BOSTON — With a driving finger roll late in the third quarter, Jayson Tatum had matched his career high of 39 points. But the two 3-pointers he had clanged right before it confirmed he was acutely aware of just how close he was to the first 40-point game of his career.

So imagine Tatum’s surprise when, with Jaylen Brown shooting free throws with 1:43 to play in the frame, Kemba Walker pointed at him as he was checking back into the game. Tatum, stuck at 39 points and believing his night was over, took a step towards the Boston bench when Walker finally gave up the gag, informing Tatum that he was actually coming in for Gordon Hayward.

Both Tatum and Walker got a good laugh out of the ruse. Shortly after, Walker assisted on another Tatum driving layup that gave the 21-year-old a new career high of 41 points.

"Oh, you seen that? I just wanted to mess with him a little bit,” Walker said with a big smile after Boston’s lopsided 140-105 triumph over the New Orleans Pelicans on Saturday night at TD Garden.

"I know he wanted to get his 40 bad. Feel like I’d mess with him a minute. … I was f---ing with him but that’s my man right there. I like messing with him.”

LIVE stream the Celtics all season and get the latest news and analysis on all of your teams from NBC Sports Boston by downloading the My Teams App.

After a sometimes tense week in which the Celtics lost three straight for the first time this season, encountering their first bit of turbulence in the 2019-20 campaign, Tatum’s outburst was exactly what the doctor ordered.

But no one appreciated Tatum's first 40-point night more than Walker.

"It’s cool, man. I love seeing these guys do what they do, put up numbers, enjoy the game, and see your hard work pay off,” said Walker. "I’ve been there, I’ve scored 40 before, I know what that feeling is like, especially to be in the NBA and score 40 points.

"That’s unreal, man. It’s hard. It’s hard to score 40 in this league so I’m happy for him."

Tatum produced the best scoring night of his young career on uber-efficient 16-of-22 shooting. He made six of the nine 3-pointers he put up and added six rebounds, four assists, and three steals. He was plus-30 in 30 minutes.

In a season in which Tatum’s success has come with the asterisk of often inefficient shooting — he entered the night shooting career worsts at 42 percent overall and 35.2 percent beyond the 3-point arc — Saturday’s outburst was much needed for both player and team.

Tatum got bottled up by Ben Simmons on a big stage during Thursday’s loss in Philadelphia. The 48-hour ramp to Saturday’s tilt was filled with angst from Celtics fans wondering if their team was truly a contender and if its collection of talented wings could all coexist.

Tatum and his teammates responded with their highest scoring first-quarter of the season (appropriately, a 41-point outburst) and hung 72 points on the Pelicans in the first half (matching their largest first-half output of the season). Tatum was ultra-aggressive from the start, attacking the basket regularly as Boston built an early cushion.

"I just felt like I needed to be better, and the starters felt the same way, just to start the game off better,” said Tatum. "Hopefully we keep it up.”

The Celtics can’t take too much from a win over the beleaguered Pelicans, a team ransacked of talent by the injury bug (though rookie Zion Williamson was in town, and might just be back in uniform when the teams meet again later this month in New Orleans) and playing the second night of a back-to-back with that shorthanded roster.

Still, Tatum’s big night was impossible to ignore, particularly putting up that sort of number in only three quarters.

“Obviously, it feels good for sure, but I never get too high or too low, if I play well or if I don’t,” said Tatum. "For me, I feel like I got a long way to go, and the guys I looked up to, they have nights like this more often than not. So, obviously it feels good, but just try to do it more often, be consistent, and continue to get better.

"After tonight you gotta forget about it and move on to the next one.”

Tatum’s response might be even better than his play. What separates All-Star-players from the rest of the league is their ability to consistently impact winning. Boston’s on/off splits confirm that Tatum has been as important to the team’s success as anyone but he’s also had nights against good teams like Philadelphia in which he’s struggled.

On Saturday night, Tatum did everything. He attacked the basket, he defended with intensity, and he didn’t get overly fixated on scoring (well, maybe outside of that late third stretch while trying to ensure 40 points). At one point in the third quarter, he passed up a solid 3-point look above the break to swing the ball to Hayward in the corner for an even better look (Hayward knocked it down).

“[Tatum] played really well tonight,” said Hayward. "And super efficient as well, so you love to see that. Like I said, most of his points, I feel like, were in the flow of the game. It wasn't like he was forcing anything, which was really good.

"So I'm happy for him. He was able to knock down some big-time shots and get to 41. Any time you can score 40 in this league, that's a big number. I'm happy for him and it's the first of many.”

Enes Kanter, who had a monster night of his own with 22 points and 19 rebounds in just 23 minutes, said of Tatum: "It’s amazing, man, to see him out there, just having fun, making himself better and making everybody else better. Just killing it every night. People always talk about, offensively, but he's just doing an amazing job on both ends. So it's been unbelievable to just witness it, what he's doing.”

A monster scrum of reporters piled around Tatum after the game and his young son, Deuce, joined his dad as he answered questions about his big night. Across the locker room, Walker took in the scene. A reporter suggested he must remember what it’s like to be that young and score 40 points for the first time.

"No, I don’t,” said Walker, taking a second to marvel at Tatum’s age of 21 years, 314 days. Walker was 24 years, 233 days when he finally broke the 40-point barrier against Orlando on Dec. 27, 2014.

"That’s special right there, man. For him to be able to get 40 points at 21 years old — man, that’s special.”

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Bulls-Celtics, which tips off Monday at 7 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live, and then Mike and Scal have the call at 7:30 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

Kemba Walker health update a roller coaster, but Enes Kanter offers calming view

Kemba Walker health update a roller coaster, but Enes Kanter offers calming view

Move over, Space Mountain. Disney’s most dizzying ride right now is the daily briefings on Kemba Walker’s health.

There’s twists, there’s turns. A lot of Celtics fans walk away feeling nauseous.

Let’s rewind: Walker started to experience left knee discomfort in mid-January and missed 10 games over the course of six weeks. He was a shell of his All-Star self and his shooting percentages plummeted. Walker got injections in the knee attempting to alleviate his discomfort but was still struggling when the NBA paused in March due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Download the MyTeams app for the latest Celtics news and analysis

With four months for Walker to rest that balky knee, the general thought was the Celtics guard would be at full health for the Orlando restart. Then Walker started experiencing discomfort after initial individual workouts in Boston earlier this month and the team decided to downshift his activities with the hope of ensuring his postseason health.

Walker spent the team’s first four days in Orlando on a strengthening program that kept him from participating in most on-court work outside of post-practice shooting. Celtics coach Brad Stevens initially said the team would tread carefully with Walker with the hope that he could increase his workload at Wednesday’s practice.

At the start of his Zoom session Wednesday, Stevens was asked if Walker was able to go through practice as expected and, well, that’s when the twists and turns started.

Twist 1: "He did not (practice).” 

Turn 2: "He did a harder workout on [Tuesday’s] off day."

Twist 3: “They’ve got him on a one-day off, one-day on plan."

Turn 4: "He’s reacted great, his knee feels good, and that’s a good thing.”

Twist 5: "He’s really prioritizing accumulating strength in that knee, so the day-on, day-off thing will be in effect for a while."

So Walker didn’t practice, but he got in a hard workout a day earlier. His knee feels good, but he’s pretty much got to downshift every other day in the early going.

Celtics Talk Podcast: Load management the new normal for Kemba? | Listen & subscribe | Watch on YouTube

A check on Celtics fans' panic meters would probably run the gamut. Those still scarred from KG’s knee, Bird’s back, IT’s hip, Kyrie’s knee, and Hayward’s ankle probably saw their meters soar. Those with faith that the Celtics are just being overly cautious probably only whistled a bit.

The Kemba coaster ended on the upswing, however. After running through all the ball-handlers the team could lean on whenever Walker is not available, Stevens punctuated his thought by noting, “Every indication is he’ll be available when we’re playing games.”

Stevens has consistently said that Boston’s focus over the next month is simply to have everyone healthy and the team playing with a rhythm when the playoffs start in mid-August. Heck, that’s been the team’s goal much of the past decade (with less-than-stellar results when it comes to star player injuries).

But is there reason to still worry? For that, we asked podcast buddy and Celtics center Enes Kanter if fans should be concerned about Walker’s health.

Kanter answered the question with his own query: Had we seen the video the Celtics posted after Monday’s practice in which Walker made nine straight 3-pointers?

“He looks like regular Kemba to me,” said Kanter.

He did acknowledge that the team’s priority is to be at full health when the games matter most. 

One thing Kanter yearned to stress: Walker’s absence from the court hasn’t taken away from his contributions. Kanter praised Walker’s leadership and is bullish that, when the playoffs start, Walker will be out there doing all the things that All-Star Walker was doing at the start of the year.

“[Celtics fans] can relax, man. Trust me,” said Kanter. "For Kemba, it’s like riding a bike. Once he’s out there, he’s going to get everybody rolling. He’s going to make himself better, he’s going to make everybody else better around him. The Celtics fans should not be so worried about him. It’s Kemba Walker.”

Added Kanter: “He looks really good to me, man. He looks in really good shape, very lean. He didn’t lose any touch or whatever. To me, it’s Kemba. He’s an All-Star, superstar. Obviously, he knows how to play basketball. Once he gets out there, he’s going to get himself going. What’s impressed me about him so much is his leadership. Sometimes you’re sidelined, but he's still talking, still communicating, still with a smile. That's important."

Alas, the Kemba coaster will remain in service until we see that. With nearly all of the Celtics media back home in Boston and locked outside the bubble, we don’t get even a tiny glimpse of practice or a morning shoot-around to try to read Walker’s body language. We’re left to rely on the small bits of information being relayed from afar.

It’s fair to be skeptical. Walker hasn’t talked to reporters since entering the bubble and probably won’t do such until he goes through his first practice. Maybe it’ll be later in the week.

Thus, the Kemba coaster glides on in the darkness, with more twists and turns to come. Celtics fans are left to hope it ends with smiles, and not everyone reaching for their puke buckets.

Celtics Talk Podcast: Will load management be Kemba Walker's new normal?

Celtics Talk Podcast: Will load management be Kemba Walker's new normal?

The NBA's four-month hiatus was supposed to be a blessing in disguise for Kemba Walker, who was dealing with a nagging injury before the coronavirus pandemic halted the 2019-20 season.

Instead, the downtime reiterated that Walker's knee may be an issue for quite some time.

The Boston Celtics held the All-Star point guard out of practice Monday and Tuesday in Orlando after he experienced "a little bit of discomfort" in his left knee during individual workouts in Boston, per head coach Brad Stevens.

Download the MyTeams app for the latest Celtics news and analysis

Walker already has missed 14 games this season, so it's not a great sign that the knee is still bothering him after four months of rest. While the Celtics are optimistic about Walker being a full go for the playoffs, NBC Sports Boston's A. Sherrod Blakely is more wary of what future seasons will look like for the 30-year-old guard.

"My concern has more to do with the fact that this is year one of a four-year deal," Blakely told co-host Chris Forsberg on the latest Celtics Talk Podcast. "This is a guy who only missed for games total in the previous four years and he's already missed 14 this year. That makes me very concerned that this may be the beginning of a career of load management for Kemba Walker.

"I just remember at the start of the season, I asked him, 'You're coming up on 30, you've logged a ton of minutes: Any talk of load management?' And he kind of scoffed at me when I brought that up. And now in retrospect I'm thinking, 'Yeah, I might have been onto something there.' "

Celtics Talk Podcast: Load management the new normal for Kemba? | Listen & subscribe | Watch on YouTube

Walker indeed was an iron man for the Hornets, playing at least 73 games in all but two of his eight seasons with Charlotte and at least 80 games in four of those campaigns. A deep team like the Celtics can afford to give Walker some "load management" games, however, so missing 10 to 15 regular-season contests might be Walker's new reality in Boston.

As for the task at hand, Forsberg is confident the C's can get Walker right for the playoffs considering how they've handled previous veteran players with knee issues.

"The Celtics have downshifted guys in the past, whether that was Al Horford or Marcus Morris -- guys with knee issues that they wanted to strengthen so that they were upright in the playoffs," Forsberg said. "Al was playing 35 minutes per game in the playoffs throughout his Celtics career.

"I'm not overly concerned that they can keep Kemba ready. It's just going to be a storyline that lingers and goes on and on: When he plays only 14 minutes in one of these seeding games, it's going to be an issue."

The Celtics have eight "seeding" games to try to move up from the No. 3 spot in the Eastern Conference before the playoffs begin. Walker might play less in those games considering Boston has locked up a playoff spot, but once the postseason rolls around, Forsberg doesn't expect the four-time All-Star to hold back.

"The other thing we need to remember: He's going to be highly motivated," Forsberg said of Walker. "He hasn't had that chance to really show what he can do on the playoff stage, and I think if anyone's going to be able to battle through a little discomfort, it's going to be Kemba Walker."

Blakely and Forsberg also spoke with ESPN's Eric Woodyard about the Milwaukee Bucks' mindset entering the NBA bubble and how they stack up with the Celtics. 

Check out the latest episode of the Celtics Talk Podcast or watch it on YouTube below.