Spry Kemba Walker the best sight for championship-craving Celtics

Spry Kemba Walker the best sight for championship-craving Celtics

Of all the positives that the Boston Celtics can pluck from Friday’s restart opener against the Milwaukee Bucks, nothing is nearly as important as how good Kemba Walker looked during his floor time.

After three weeks of consternation about Walker’s balky left knee, Boston’s point guard scored 16 points in 19 minutes and looked far more like the All-Star version of himself from the start of the 2019-20 season than the hobbled player we saw before the season paused in March.

Walker looked swift and spry, playing with familiar zip and bounce. He put constant pressure on Milwaukee’s defense in the high pick-and-roll and had the shooting touch that often evaded him as he fought his sore knee in the winter months.

Why does it matter so much? The Celtics are legitimate title contenders if they get 35 minutes per playoff game of the Walker we saw on Friday night. The ceiling is much lower if Walker is compromised.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Trail Blazers, which begins Sunday at 2:30 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live followed by tip-off at 3:30 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

So even though the Bucks escaped with a win, Boston can take solace in how a healthy Walker could level the playing field against maybe the best team in the conference.

Walker said he "felt pretty normal … [The knee] felt good. I felt very comfortable out there moving.” And teammates echoed his assessment.

"I thought [Walker] looked great,” said Gordon Hayward. "Definitely showed good spurts there. Definitely brings some pace to our team. Another threat, another ball-handler, another guy that’s a competitor and a winner, and we’re happy to have him back.”

Walker connected on five of his nine shots, including a trio of 3-pointers. After the Bucks opened the game on a 17-2 run — with Boston’s only bucket being an inadvertent putback of a Walker miss by a Milwaukee defender — Walker settled his team with a pull-up jumper four minutes in. He hit his first 3-pointer a short time later as Boston rallied back into the game.

Early in the second quarter, he sprinted to catch a pass above the 3-point arc, dribbled back towards the midcourt logo, then accelerated off an Enes Kanter screen before draining a pull-up 3 with Milwaukee’s defense sagging.

"Kemba certainly was a positive, I thought,” said Celtics coach Brad Stevens. "He just puts so much pressure on defense when he comes off pick-and-rolls and with his speed.”

Walker entered the game knowing he was going to play a maximum of 20 minutes but that didn’t stop him from playfully lobbying to get some extra second-half floor time. "But nobody listened to me, so it didn’t really matter,” Walker said with a chuckle. "I knew I wasn’t going back in. It was set.”

Stevens said he never considered reinserting Walker and reaffirmed that the team is married to its plan of pacing Walker so that he’s playing his normal minutes load in the postseason.

“I’m not playing that game. Kemba’s knee is the most important thing,” said Stevens. "We’re trying to strengthen it. His 18-20 minutes, whatever he ended up with, that was part of the plan. We weren’t going to stretch that. It’s hard after you come out at the end of the third to then be inserted for a couple of minutes.”

Walker has embraced the Celtics’ plan and says that, tough as it can be, he has to stay committed to the path.

"I knew what I was coming into. I’ve just got to stay positive, and just keep on knowing that it’s part of the bigger picture,” said Walker. "My minutes will gradually go up game by game, depending on how my knee acts after every game. So, I’m feeling good. I’m looking forward to [Saturday’s] practice, to learn from my mistakes, and then head back into Sunday and play another one and be better.”

How 76ers' Al Horford feels about seeing Celtics in first-round series

How 76ers' Al Horford feels about seeing Celtics in first-round series

Al Horford has been around long enough to know not speak ill of his opponents -- especially when he used to play for them.

Horford's 76ers are locked into a first-round NBA playoff matchup with the Boston Celtics, where he spent three seasons from 2016 to 2019 before signing with Philadelphia in free agency last summer.

So, how does the veteran big man feel about facing his old mates in his first playoff series with the Sixers?

"What are the odds?" Horford told ESPN's Rachel Nichols, adding he's glad the teams will meet in the neutral setting of the NBA bubble to spare him returning to a hostile TD Garden crowd.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Wizards, which begins Thursday at 11 a.m. with Celtics Pregame Live followed by tip-off at noon. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

Celtics fans indeed won't have the chance to boo Horford this postseason, and he's not giving them reason to, anyway. Here's what Horford added to Nichols about the red-hot Celtics:

"In my eyes, they’re playing the best of all the teams in the bubble right now.”

The undefeated-in-the-bubble Phoenix Suns may disagree with Horford's assessment, but the C's are hitting their stride at the right time. They've won four games in a row -- three by double digits -- and routed the defending champion Toronto Raptors last Friday.

The Sixers, meanwhile, have lost three consecutive games since losing All-Star guard Ben Simmons to a season-ending knee injury and appear in danger of flaming out in the first round.

If Horford has any regrets about leaving Boston for Philly last offseason, though, he's certainly not letting on.

"For us, it’s a great opportunity," Horford told reporters Wednesday in a video conference, via The Boston Globe's Gary Washburn. "... It’s part of the business. Obviously, we’ve already played them plenty of times this year so that effect is out of the way, so now we can go out there and compete. It should be a fun series."

2020 NBA Playoffs: Three big questions before Celtics vs. 76ers Round 1 series

2020 NBA Playoffs: Three big questions before Celtics vs. 76ers Round 1 series

The Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers — maybe the closest thing to a rivalry in an ever-changing Eastern Conference — will joust in the opening round of the bubble playoffs starting next week in Orlando.

This is not your typical 3-6 matchup and the Sixers are the wildest of wildcards.

After luring Al Horford down Interstate-95 last summer, Philadelphia was anointed a title contender based solely on its accumulation of talent, and even Celtics fans fretted over the Sixers’ potential. Philadelphia, however, has underwhelmed throughout the 2019-20 (not-so) regular season and injury woes have thwarted any hopes that the bubble might serve as a much-needed reset button.

Now, with Ben Simmons sidelined for the postseason after knee surgery and Joel Embiid back after a minor ankle injury, the Sixers find themselves limping into the playoffs with decidedly less swagger than they oozed entering a hope-filled season.

There is a case to be made that, as TJ Warren catches fire in the bubble and the Miami Heat play their typical brand of gritty ball, Philadelphia was the best possible draw for Boston.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Wizards, which begins Thursday at 11 a.m. with Celtics Pregame Live followed by tip-off at noon. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

But this series is not without concerns. Even at the height of their pre-quarantine struggles, the Sixers have been a rather undesirable foe if only because Boston has struggled so mightily against their size. The injury to Simmons, combined with Philadelphia’s inability to find its groove, has simply made the matchup more palpable than it might have previously seemed only weeks ago.

While the Sixers are left hoping they can improbably find their missing magic inside Mickey’s kingdom, the Celtics have watched just about everything fall into place for them.

Kemba Walker, slowly shedding a minutes restriction, has played at the All-Star level he displayed when he first arrived in Boston; Jayson Tatum is making the calendar look like it’s February again; Jaylen Brown might be Boston’s most consistent two-way player inside the bubble; Gordon Hayward and his mystical mustache have been a luxury of a fourth option; and Marcus Smart is doing all the usual Marcus Smart things. Boston is healthy for pretty much the first time all season and even their much-scrutinized bench seems to have found a bit of a groove in the ramp to the postseason.

All of which should seemingly leave Boston in the driver’s seat in this series. ESPN’s Basketball Power Index projects Boston with a 72 percent chance to advance and is more bullish on a Boston sweep (13 percent chance) than Philly grinding out a seven-game victory (11 percent).

Celtics Talk Podcast: Banner 18 in the bubble? Celtics' title chances getting stronger as postseason nears | Listen & subscribe | Watch on YouTube

There’s still a lot of questions for the Celtics to answer in Round 1 that will dictate whether this series is as breezy as the numbers might suggest. Remember, too, that Philadelphia won the season series 3-1. This won’t come easy. 

How does Walker’s balky knee respond to the grind of playoff basketball? Can Tatum and Brown not only maintain their high level of play but ratchet up their contributions like they’ve done as the focal points in previous postseasons?

Here are the three biggest questions on our mind as we brace for the start of the series: 

Which Embiid shows up this series? And how the heck do Celtics defend him?

Despite all their question marks, the Sixers might have the best player on the court in this series and that can never be discounted.

Will we see the Embiid who stomped into Boston in December and put up 38 points and 13 rebounds after pundits questioned his superstardom? Or can the Celtics blitz him with extra bodies and quiet Embiid like they did in early February during a lopsided win at TD Garden?

Daniel Theis and Co. have struggled against beefier bigs inside the bubble and Celtics coach Brad Stevens will have to earn that new extension by finding creative ways to take some stress off his undersized bigs. If Embiid plays to his potential, the Sixers can make this a dogfight. If Simmons’ absence allows the Celtics to really hone in on Embiid, it puts an awful lot of stress on Philly’s supporting cast.

How much will Simmons’ absence be felt in the series?

Losing an All-Star is never ideal.

But the 76ers had a team-high net rating of plus-16.4 in the 44 minutes that Ben Simmons was off the floor against the Celtics this season. That’s a surprisingly high number and one that made us wonder if it was simply a small sample size at play.

But when we zoom in on the 28 minutes that Embiid played without Simmons in those four games against Boston, Philadelphia’s net rating actually spiked all the way to plus-24.8 with a defensive rating of 78.9 over that span. Again -- small sample -- but it seems to suggest that Philadelphia can not only survive Simmons’ absence, but thrive at times without him.

The question is whether that can bear itself out over a series. Simmons’ absence, however, puts a lot of pressure on Shake Milton to confidently run the point and create offensive chances for a team that doesn’t have nearly as much perimeter shooting at it did in previous years. Can the 23-year-old quarterback an offense that has rarely found its groove?

Will Philadelphia’s size and length disrupt Boston’s offense?

Boston’s offensive rating against the Sixers this season was an underwhelming 106.9, dipping to 103.1 in Boston's three losses. The Celtics shot 43.3 percent overall against Philadelphia and a mere 32.5 percent beyond the 3-point arc. Why so much trouble?

Not only do the Sixers make things difficult around the basket (Boston shot a gruesome 40.5 percent inside the paint) but they also have tall, long-armed defenders on the perimeter who make it difficult to generate sustained ball movement and will contest most shots. There will be few easy looks if the Celtics can’t get the ball popping around the floor like they showed the ability to do during the latter half of seeding games.

And what happens on nights when shots simply aren’t falling? Walker, in particular, struggled to finish around the basket due to Philly’s size. Boston has to find a way to either score more consistently around the hoop, or at least get to the foul line more frequently. The Sixers will roll out a whole bunch of long defenders (Josh Richardson, Matisse Thybulle) who will make Boston work for decent looks.

The bottom line is that Philadelphia poses obvious problems for Boston, but the absence of Simmons makes it harder to see how the Sixers find the consistency that has evaded them all season. While not the most ideal matchup, it’s about as good of a draw as Boston could have hoped given the options.

If the Celtics play like they did at the tail end of their seeding games, they will win the series. If they let Embiid and the Sixers get some confidence, and if Horford plays with some additional motivation against his former team, it could get a bit more interesting.