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

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

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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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Bill Russell posts touching tribute to late, former NBA commissioner David Stern

Bill Russell posts touching tribute to late, former NBA commissioner David Stern

Former NBA commissioner David Stern passed away earlier this month after dealing with complications following a mid-December brain hemorrhage. On Tuesday, a memorial service was held one of the NBA's biggest off-the-court legends.

Many former stars honored Stern's life and legacy on Tuesday. And among them was 11-time NBA champion Celtics center Bill Russell.

Russell posted a touching tribute to Stern on his Twitter account late Tuesday night: 

It's clear that Stern meant a lot to the Celtics legend. His legacy will surely be carried by former and current players alike.

Stern is widely credited with the globalization of the NBA and is responsible for the construction of the league today. The Basketball Hall of Famer helped found the WNBA, the NBA G League, expanded the NBA's digital presence and established NBA Cares, an NBA social responsibility initiative in his 30 years in charge of the NBA.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Grizzlies-Celtics, which begins Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live, followed by tip-off at 7:30 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

As Grizzlies arrive on rise, the value of their pick for Celtics falls

As Grizzlies arrive on rise, the value of their pick for Celtics falls

The Memphis Grizzlies, improbably in playoff position at the midpoint of the 2019-20 season, make their lone visit to Boston on Wednesday night. Every flashy Ja Morant crossover or loud Jaren Jackson slam will be a painful reminder of how Memphis’ unexpected rise has diminished the value of the future first-round pick they still owe the Celtics.

The Grizzlies' pick, obtained by Boston in January 2015, once seemed destined to become a glitzy unprotected 2021 selection. At various times, it’s seemed untouchable or, at very worst, the prize gem in any big-splash move the Celtics might make to enhance their roster.

Instead, the Grizzlies jumped on the rebuilding accelerator and, suddenly, the value of that Memphis pick is very much in flux. Winners of seven of their past eight, the Grizzlies currently sit eighth in the West and are more likely to convey a pick in the teens this season, barring a lottery-night vault.

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The Memphis pick is top-six protected this year, meaning it conveys to Boston if it lands at No. 7 or worse in this year’s draft. According to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index, the pick currently has only an 11.3 percent chance of slotting in spots 1-6. If the Grizzlies make the postseason, the pick would be no better than 15th overall but even a second-half slide might not push it below double digits. A pick can vault into the top four spots under the new lottery format and teams are slotted by order of finish after that.

This is less than ideal for the Celtics, if only because of the value the pick would have otherwise held this summer if it had rolled over to 2021 and become unprotected. Even if the Grizzlies projected as a legitimate playoff contender, the unpredictability of an NBA season would have kept the value high.

What’s more, the tepid outlook on the 2020 draft class could further diminish the overall value of a conveyed pick. Don’t misconstrue, it’s still a luxury for the Celtics to have another potential lottery selection in their possession and the opportunity to add more cost-controlled talent to a top-heavy cap sheet could aid the team’s quest to be a long-term contender.

Still, these Celtics are already trying to figure out where 2019 first-round picks Romeo Langford (14th) and Grant Williams (22nd) fit with this team. And what will become of 2018 first-rounder Robert Williams once healthy? All of this year’s rookies have had encouraging moments but, as the lopsided win over the Lakers on Monday night showed, the rookies probably don’t project for big roles in Boston’s playoff rotation.

So, the lingering question with the Grizzlies pick is whether Boston would be better served to use it as a trade asset — whether that’s in-season this year to pursue additional veteran help, or over the summer when they might have more glaring needs to fill.  Remember, too, the Celtics already have two other first-round picks in the 2020 draft — their own, currently projected at No. 23, and the Bucks’ pick, currently projected at No. 30.

The Celtics learned the hard way how fast draft picks can shift in value. In between all the Nets picks — which Boston hit home runs by drafting Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, but whiffed on mid-round pick James Young — and Griz pick there was the much-ballyhooed Kings pick. Much like the Grizzlies this year, Sacramento made an unexpected charge at the playoffs last season and Boston settled for the No. 14 pick in the 2019 draft that they used to select Langford.

Could the Celtics have sold higher? Maybe. It certainly had more value in the summer before it conveyed when the Kings tied for the sixth-worst NBA record at 27-55. Adding insult to injury, the Kings have reverted to a pumpkin this year, and now sit tied for the second-worst record in the West.

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If nothing else, the Kings pick should encourage Boston to at least consider the idea of moving the Grizzlies pick should an intriguing deal emerge — or at least one in which Boston's two late first-round picks wouldn’t be enough to make it happen. Ultimately, the Celtics played the long game with the Grizzlies pick and will be rewarded one way or another — maybe just not as handsomely as they once hoped.

A roster-churning Celtics squad originally landed the pick in 2015 after dealing Jeff Green to Memphis as part of a three-team swap that also brought back Tayshaun Prince and Austin Rivers. The pick, dealt when the Grizzlies were in the midst of a 55-win season, had enough protections to make it a very low-risk maneuver for Memphis. But then the team’s Grit-and-Grind era ended sooner than anticipated and an uncertain rebuild arrived. It looked like the pick could very well convey as unprotected in 2021.

Instead, Morant has muscled his way into being the frontrunner for the Rookie of the Year award and morphed Memphis from a 20-win projection to a team pushing the Spurs for the final spot in the West.

This is the first of two matchups between the Celtics and Grizzlies this season. Boston can help its own draft cause with a win. That Memphis pick might never be as sexy as it once was but it’s still a key asset for the Celtics in shaping their roster moving forward.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Grizzlies-Celtics, which begins Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live, followed by tip-off at 7:30 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.