Celtics

Kemba Walker's Charlotte return reminds Celtics how lucky they are

Kemba Walker's Charlotte return reminds Celtics how lucky they are

Don’t miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Spurs, which tips off  Saturday at 4:30 p.m. ET with Celtics Pregame Live, and then Mike & Scal have the call of the game at 5 p.m. You can also stream the game through the MyTeams App.

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CHARLOTTE — The sheer number of No. 15 jerseys — in an endless array of Hornets (and even Bobcats) colors — that filled the Spectrum Center on Thursday night tell you a bit about how much Kemba Walker meant to the city of Charlotte.

So did the standing ovation he received after a tear-inducing tribute video during lineup introductions. But what really confirmed Walker’s impact here was the crowds he drew at every turn. Fans, arena staffers, and even former teammates eager for a tiny slice of time with an old friend.

Like after the final buzzer of the Celtics' 108-97 triumph, when a gaggle of Hornets players surrounded Walker near the midcourt stripe. Walker had already visited the Hornets’ locker room on Thursday morning, lingering long enough that he came sprinting out while fearful he was going to miss the start of Boston’s shootaround. Hours later, those same former teammates all waited for another chance to be a part of Walker’s big day.

Or like 100 minutes before tipoff when two of Walker’s young mentees from Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Carolinas waited on the baseline near the visitor’s tunnel to present Walker with a gift. Walker brought new Celtics swag for the kids, which they couldn’t change into fast enough. Nearby, Mike and Elizabeth Peeler waited with fresh brownies, the same sweets that helped them morph from Hornets season ticket holders to real-life friends with Walker years back. The Peelers had already upgraded to Celtics-themed threads.

Walker only experienced two playoffs series in Charlotte, both ended quickly. But Celtics coach Brad Stevens noted that sometimes the measure of a player goes beyond wins and losses.

"Here’s the legacy thing to me: You can argue the great players, you can’t argue great winners, you can’t argue great teammates,” said Celtics coach Brad Stevens. "So you might want to compare this guy to this guy, whatever the case may be. When you leave a place, how your teammates talk about you, that’s the definition of your time there. I think that sums it up to Kemba.

"I read the article this morning where all of his [former Charlotte] teammates were gushing about him and that is consistent to every team he’s ever been on. And we’re seeing that here [in Boston]. That is, as a team sport, as a teammate, that’s the legacy, that’s the one that matters.”

New teammate Jaylen Brown told Walker he was going to cry at some point Thursday. Brown had seen how emotional these things can be and, knowing Walker’s strong ties to the region, Brown figured waterworks were coming.

For the first minute of the Hornets' tribute video, Walker held himself together. Over the final 30 seconds, his blinking intensified as he tried to hold back tears. It would be the one battle he lost on this night.

While Walker wouldn’t use his emotions as an excuse, it’s hard to look at someone who started 0-for-6 shooting without wondering if he had just a little too much adrenaline pumping.

"I was just off,” said Walker, not convincing anyone of the suggestion. "It’s a part of the game. I just missed shots. I took great shots. I was just missing. I don’t think the way I played had anything to do with the emotions or anything like that.”

Even coach Brad Stevens knew it was going to be a tough night for Walker.

“It’s really hard. He had the right idea coming into the game but you knew right after they played that video, that probably was going to be a tough start,” said Stevens. "That was really cool and great tribute by the Hornets. I know how much he appreciated it. Going out and playing a game after spending [eight] years here is probably really difficult.”

Walker seemed like he could finally exhale as he exited the visitors’ locker room late Thursday night. He had joked about how he only came into that room when he had been randomly selected for NBA drug testing.

On Thursday, his high came from simply seeing old friends.

"I knew [Thursday] was going to be a special time, a special night,” said Walker. "If I had to do it all over again, I would. I can’t lie. It was special. I was really looking forward to this day for a really long time.”

Walker downplayed a suggestion that he had a temporary brain cramp when he took a step towards the home locker room after the horn sounded at halftime. He insisted he knew which way he was supposed to head and quickly caught himself.

Walker came out looser in the second half, scoring 11 of his 14 points in the third quarter. A trio of 3-pointers in the frame helped Boston stretch open a lead that allowed them to coast to the finish line.

The Celtics have now won six in a row and they are feeling good about themselves while sitting atop the Eastern Conference. The Hornets? There’s been some encouraging glimpses early in the season and yet it feels like more of the same for the franchise.

In a fourth-quarter timeout, the Hornets ran a HivesTunes promotion with fans singing the moving-on anthem, “I Will Survive.” Even if by coincidence, it was an eyebrow-raising choice. And unlike the scorned lover in Gloria Gaynor’s hit, the Hornets were OK with letting Walker back in that door for one more night.

After all, everyone just wants a little more time with Kemba.

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NBA Notebook: The global expansion of the league MVP race

NBA Notebook: The global expansion of the league MVP race

BOSTON -- The MVP race is just starting to heat up with no shortage of candidates. 

There are the usual suspects in the mix this season as well as a few unfamiliar faces like Boston’s Kemba Walker according to NBA.com’s Sekou Smith (SPOILER ALERT: He’s got Kemba pretty damn high on his list. Check out the link and see why).

Still, this season's race has a strong international flavor at the top, headlined by the reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks with Dallas’ Luka Doncic right on his heels.

Not only does Antetokounmpo have the Bucks rolling atop the Eastern Conference standings at a league-best record  19-3, but the Greek sensation is putting up numbers that are even better than they were a year ago when he won the award. 

Antetokounmpo is looking to be the first repeat winner of the award since Golden State’s Stephen Curry (2015 and 2016) and so far, he’s making it damn difficult for all comers. 

He joined Dirk Nowitzki (2007) as the only international player to win the league MVP award with no prior college basketball experience in the United States. 

And just like Antetokounmpo has taken the league by storm in recent years, Doncic is doing much of the same now as he tries to build off last season’s Rookie of the Year campaign. 

But this season, the 20-year-old has taken his game to another level. 

The reigning Western Conference player of the month, Doncic is averaging 30.3 points, 10.1 rebounds and 9.1 assists - numbers that no player this young has averaged in a single season. 

Those include seven triple-doubles, which equals the NBA record for triple-doubles in a season for a player this young. 

When you look at the numbers and that the Mavericks (11-6) are among the better teams in the West, Doncic’s MVP candidacy is real. 

“The MVP race so far kind of reflects how the league as a whole is looking this year,” a league executive told NBC Sports Boston. “It just feels a lot more wide open now than it has in past years. But those two guys, Giannis and Luka, are special talents. I suspect we’ll be talking about them and the MVP race for years to come. Their both really young, really good players who are great for the league and for their respective teams.”

LET’S TRY THIS REPLAY CHALLENGE ONE MORE TIME

The NBA has been abuzz with talk of officiating after the Houston Rockets protested a call at San Antonio that was incorrect and in hindsight, was critical in their overtime loss to the Spurs. Well, Houston was involved in yet another questionable late-game call they did not agree with. It came in Toronto on Thursday. 

Different game, different outcome. 

The Rockets, challenging a foul called against Austin Rivers with 1:14 to play that would have put the Raptors' Fred VanVleet at the free-throw line with three shots to potentially make it a one-possession game, had the call on the floor overturned. 

And moments after gaining possession after winning the challenge, Russell Westbrook scored to seal Houston’s 119-109 victory. 

OLYNYK'S IMPACT ON TWO FRANCHISES REMEMBERED

Miami Heat center Kelly Olynyk returned to Boston this week, the place where his watershed moment in the NBA occurred.

Even though it has been a couple of years since he played for the Celtics, folks still recall how he carried them to a Game 7 win over Washington in the 2017 Eastern Conference semifinals with 26 points in 28 minutes.

Not only did it set him up for a big payday (four years, $50 million) that summer, but it also sent two franchises in completely different directions. Boston has been a mainstay among the top teams in the East since then, while the Wizards have steadily descended into becoming a basketball afterthought.

“That summer, everything got shaken up,” Olynyk told NBC Sports Boston. “Washington had some injury troubles and stuff, and for us, we all got shook up that summer; basically our whole team was gone. We had a great group of guys that year. We loved playing with each other and playing for one another. Coach [Brad] Stevens did a real good job; we just gelled. It was a fun team to be a part of.”

KNICKS' ISSUE IS TALENT, NOT COACHING

This has been a rough season for David Fizdale and the New York Knicks, currently owning an eight-game losing streak following a 129-92 beatdown at home to the Denver Nuggets. The Knicks have lost their last two games by a combined 81 points which serves as one of the largest two-game margins of defeat in NBA history. 

We have seen this story play out time and time again, often ending with the coach being fired which is exactly what happened on Friday, according to multiple reports.

But what’s often lost in the Knicks struggles, is the fact that they are using players who are talent-wise, far below those that they were vigorously pursuing. 

Remember they cleared all that salary cap space with the intent being to land one or two of the bigger-name free agents out there, only to strike out with all of them. 

Rather than having some combination of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard, they have Julius Randle, Bobby Portis and Marcus Morris Sr. who are all good players but … they ain’t Irving, Durant or Leonard. 

And that lack of elite, next-level talent more than anything else, is why the Knicks are one of the worst teams in the NBA and won't be that much better now that Fizdale has been fired.  

MELO'S DEAL FULLY GUARANTEED

Based on how Carmelo Anthony has played and his impact on what matters most to teams - winning - word about Melo’s contract being fully guaranteed by the Portland Trail Blazers was no surprise.

Signed to a partially guaranteed deal on Nov. 14, Melo has been instrumental in the Blazers’ rebirth from a team looking lottery-bound to one that looks a lot more like the crew that’s hoping to get back to the Western Conference finals. 

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After losing the first three games with Melo, Portland has won four of its past five and are just 1.5 games behind Phoenix for the eighth spot in the West. 

He’s showing that while he may not be as explosive a scorer as he once was, he can still get buckets and help a Portland team in desperate need of more offensive punch. 

LEBRON ON THE "PRETTY BAD" TRAVELING CALL

It’s not the norm for NBA players to snitch on themselves when the referees miss a call against them. But LeBron James really didn’t have a choice when asked about the blatantly obvious travel at Utah that the entire world saw and has become yet another James-inspired, meme-worthy moment. “It was the worst thing, probably one of the worst things I’ve ever done in my career,” James told reporters afterward before adding, “I feel bad for the refs on that one because they’ll probably get a write-up on that or something. That was pretty bad.”

FAST BREAKS

  • We’ll finally get to see the MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo face the NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard Friday night when the Milwaukee Bucks host the Los Angeles Clippers. The two were supposed to face off earlier this season, but the Clippers elected to give Leonard the night off for “load management” purposes. The NBA later fined the Clippers $50,000 because of comments made by coach Doc Rivers that according to the league, “were inconsistent with Leonard’s health status.”
  • The Brooklyn Nets are better talent-wise with Kyrie Irving, but in terms of wins? With him this season, they are 4-7. In the games he has missed, they are 7-3. 
  • Former Celtic guard Shane Larkin continues to assert himself as the best overseas talent not currently in the NBA, recently setting a Euroleague record with 49 points (in just 31 minutes) in Anadolu Efes Istanbul’s 103-75 win over FC Bayern Munich. Look for him on an NBA roster next season. 
  • Most Improved candidates to keep an eye on include New Orleans’ Brandon Ingram; the Celtics' Jaylen Brown; Minnesota’s Andrew Wiggins; Charlotte’s Devonte Graham and Toronto’s Fred VanVleet.
  • BLAKELY'S POWER RANKINGS: Western Conference elite again setting the pace

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Nuggets, which tips off Friday at 7 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live, and then Mike & Tommy have the call at 8 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

Boston Celtics vs. Denver Nuggets live stream: Watch NBA game online

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Boston Celtics vs. Denver Nuggets live stream: Watch NBA game online

The Boston Celtics came up just short the last time they faced the Denver Nuggets. They'll get a shot at revenge Friday night at TD Garden.

During the C's West-Coast road trip in November, Boston fell to Denver 96-92. More notable than the game itself was Kemba Walker going down with a scary neck injury and being taken off the court on a stretcher. Fortunately, Walker turned out OK and will look to lead the Celtics to a W in front of the home crowd.

Boston is coming off a 112-93 victory over the Miami Heat on Wednesday night in which Jaylen Brown dropped 31 points and Walker added 28.

Be sure to tune into NBC Sports Boston for Celtics Pregame Live at 7 p.m. ET, followed by the game at 8 p.m. ET or stream it via the MyTeams app. 

HOW TO WATCH

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ANALYSIS AND REACTION

BEFORE THE GAME: At 7 p.m., Celtics Pregame Live presented by TD Bank gets you ready for the game with reports from Kyle Draper, Chris MannixMike Gorman, Brian Scalabrine, A. Sherrod Blakely, Chris Forsberg, and Abby Chin. Watch on NBC Sports Boston or click here for the live stream.

AT HALFTIME: Tune in to watch a breakdown of the first two quarters on Halftime Live presented by Ace Ticket. Watch on NBC Sports Boston or click here for the live stream.

AFTER THE GAME: As soon as the game ends, tune to Celtics Postgame Live presented by New England Ford for analysis, commentary and player reaction. Watch on NBC Sports Boston or click here for the live stream

Questions on our livestream? Get all your questions answered here on our Streaming FAQ.

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