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BOSTON — The night before the Boston Celtics’ home opener, Kemba Walker returned to the Auerbach Center with assistant coach Joe Mazzulla for what’s become a common offday challenge: Make 500 3-pointers.
The drill is timed to give Walker both a benchmark for his performance and a bit of extra motivation. The early sessions tended to clock in around 45 minutes, an absurd pace of one 3-point make every 5.4 seconds, especially when you consider the sheer volume of shots and Walker’s movement around the arc.
Those evening sessions typically give Walker a confidence to trust his shot. But, at the start of his Boston adventure, his shot defied him and Walker was incredulous. After missing 14 shots in Boston’s season opener in Philadelphia, Walker misfired on his first six shots during the Celtics’ home-opener against Toronto, including a layup so simple that he still can’t fathom the physics behind how it bounced out.
Walker yearned to show a new fanbase why the Celtics bestowed a four-year, $141 million maximum-salary contract on him this summer. He wanted to showcase the offensive skills that landed him on the All-NBA team last season. But with every miss, he could feel himself starting to press a bit.
Until something calmed him down: The Boston fans.
"The energy in that building, it’s like something that I’ve never really been a part of,” Walker said of the TD Garden. "Feels like college a little bit, just the atmosphere and the amount of love. The best thing about it is the support.
"Against Toronto, when I was struggling in the first half, I could hear people in the stands like, ‘Don’t worry about it, Kemba. Keep shooting, man.’ I’m like, ‘Damn, that feels good.’ Fans could be frustrated because they want to see me make shots but to hear that come from the fans, that’s a good feeling.”
Walker missed 14 shots overall in the home-opener but had a fourth-quarter flurry in which he made four shots in just over two minutes to help the Celtics rally ahead of the Raptors. Walker seemingly spent the entire start of the fourth quarter emphatically flexing as the crowd roared in delight.
And, in that moment, it confirmed his decision to leave the comforts of Charlotte for a new Boston adventure. Feeling the Garden rumble was everything that Walker ever yearned for during his career.
"That was important, being a part of something special,” said Walker. "I know how special this fan base is. It’s definitely one of the best we have in our league. It’s a sports town, not only just the Celtics, but the Patriots, Bruins, Red Sox. I know how much this place loves its sports.
"The Celtics are a legendary organization, they’ve been around so long, and have so many fans. I realized it, too, when we were in China, when the four of us were there for USA Basketball. We had so many Celtics fans there. It was unbelievable. Like no other. It’s not something that I’ve ever really witnessed.”
On Thursday night, Walker returns to Charlotte for the first time since signing with Boston. He knows it’s going to be emotional seeing all the familiar faces from the only franchise he knew for the first eight years of his NBA career. But he’s also adamant that he wants to win the game.
Walker is a major reason for Boston’s 5-1 start. He shook off those early shooting woes and now sits 12th in the NBA in scoring averaging 26 points per game while shooting 40.4 percent from the floor and 42.6 percent beyond the 3-point arc.
Playing with what’s almost certainly the most talented collection of teammates in his career, Walker doesn’t have to stress when his shot is not falling. Boston has other players that can carry the scoring load. He’s embraced impacting the game in ways beyond offense like maintaining his spot as one of the elite charge-takers in the league and putting up the best rebounding numbers of his career.
There is almost always a honeymoon period when stars switch teams and winning aids those good vibes. But Walker is exactly what the Celtics needed in the aftermath of the Kyrie Irving experiment.
And the Celtics are exactly what Walker needed, too.
Watching from afar, he found himself jealous while watching how the fans responded to Boston stars during big games. Walker yearned to be a part of a place where basketball really mattered.
“I'd seen it before, watching games,” said Walker. "I’d seen Isaiah [Thomas] kill it. From afar, watching it on TV, just seeing the fans go insane — yeah, man, I definitely envisioned that before I got a chance to actually experience it.”
Now that he’s a part of it, did it live up to expectations?
That’s when Walker’s trademark smile seems to somehow doubles in size. His face lights up as he nods emphatically.
Walker promises this is just the beginning, too. He doesn’t feel like the Celtics have played their best basketball and he certainly hasn’t played his.
Walker and Mazzulla got back in the gym recently for another batch of 500 3-pointers. His time: a personal best of 41 minutes, 14 seconds and a sizzling pace of a make ever 4.95 seconds.
Walker has already had a couple of loud nights in the Garden, including a pair of 30+ point nights in wins over the Knicks and Bucks. But he knows bigger offensive explosions are coming. Those late-night shooting sessions confirm it.
And Walker can’t wait to feel the Garden really rock. It’s why he’s here.
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