BOSTON — Kemba Walker sat slumped in a chair at his locker stall, a towel draped over his head, as he processed Boston’s latest head-shaking defeat.
Capping an astoundingly brutal nine-day stretch, Walker got pickpocketed in the backcourt by Oklahoma City’s Denis Schroder with the Celtics clinging to a one-point lead with under 10 seconds to play on Sunday at TD Garden. Schroder promptly delivered a layup that lifted the visiting Thunder to a 105-104 triumph.
Walker, who missed five games coming out of the All-Star break due to knee soreness, hasn’t been himself for more than a month now. Since Jan. 28, Walker is averaging 16.9 points per game while shooting 32.2 percent from the floor and 31.2 percent beyond the 3-point arc. Boston is 5-4 in that stretch.
A minutes restriction has certainly hindered his output. More concerning is the uncharacteristic lapses in big-time moments.
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While Celtics coach Brad Stevens absolved Walker of blame for Sunday’s late-game turnover (“Kemba did the exact right thing,” Stevens said of Walker dribbling away from Chris Paul’s pressure only to be swiped by Schroder), the miscue came in almost the exact same spot where, just five days ago, Walker got trapped by the Nets with Boston clinging to a three-point lead and 5.1 seconds to play. Brooklyn won a jump ball, Caris LeVert forced overtime when Marcus Smart improbably fouled, and, well, you know the rest.
Two brutal turnovers in two key situations. Smart did a poor job of putting Walker in spots to avoid trouble but, ultimately, the Celtics put the ball in an All-Stars hands with a chance to dribble out the clock and somehow botched it twice in less than a week.
"I mean, obviously I turned the ball over, so I was just a little upset about that,” Walker said after the rest of his teammates had departed the locker room. "It’s frustrating. That’s the second time it’s happened in three games, so I’ve just got to be better.”
The Celtics, with these recent hiccups, have watched their hopes for the No. 2 seed erode. Losers of four of their last five overall, Boston has slipped three games behind the Raptors. The Celtics almost certainly need to win the final head-to-head matchup up north later this month and will still need a little help to truly make a push for that second spot that would ensure 1) Avoiding a brutal first-round matchup (like the dance with Philly that Boston would get if the season ended today), and 2) Homecourt advantage in the East semifinals.
Walker, on a minutes restriction since his return, saw his playing time climb to 31 minutes on Sunday. In a rare bit of encouraging injury news around this team, he noted that, “The knee is good, really good. I'm definitely happy about that.”
Now if he could just find his shot and his typical swagger. Walker has missed 10 shots or more in each of his last six games. He took only one shot in the final 10 minutes of Sunday’s game and missed a layup after carving through traffic with Boston up 1.
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Even on nights he struggled, the Celtics could typically lean late on Cardiac Kemba, a player who typically saves his finest work for crunch time. Over his last five games, though, Walker is 5-of-22 shooting (22.7 percent) in the fourth quarter.
"I think I'm getting some pretty good looks, they just aren't going down,” said Walker. "I'm going to keep working towards it and get better. I'll be there for my teammates for sure. It's only my third game back. It's tough for me because I know I can make those shots that I'm taking. At the moment, it's not falling but this is not the first time I've had a stretch like this in my career when I haven't been playing so well. But I'll be better.”
Walker was fantastic out of the gates on Sunday. He seemed to have that familiar bounce even while fighting his shot. Walker’s exploits had helped Boston open as much as an 18-point lead, but then the Celtics let the Thunder rally late in the first half instead of putting the game away.
Gordon Hayward said teammates were trying to keep Walker positive.
"A lot of people said something to him,” said Hayward. "Definitely not why we lost the game. Most of us have been there — I’ve been there. It sucks when something like that happens but he’s still the same player who has carried us a lot this season. So we need him and it’s on all of us. We lost this game together.”
To be certain, Walker wasn’t solely responsible for Sunday’s letdown. Stevens hasn’t been able to help his team catch itself when things go sideways, something they’ve been so good at for most of the year. The Celtics put the game away if they make their layups late on Sunday.
Boston needs a little bit more from everybody, including Walker, even if the ultimate goal is ensuring he’s upright and confident heading into the postseason.
"Kemba is one of our best players, we need him to have a chance to do anything significant and we all know it,” said Stevens. "So whatever it takes for us all to be at our best, when our best is needed, we need to do that, but he's a critical piece, obviously.”
Walker pleaded for unity from the Celtics while navigating this rough patch.
"We’ve just got to stay together. There’s definitely been some very tough losses. But we’ve got to try our best to hold our heads high,” said Walker. "Stuff like this happens. Losses come and you can learn from them, you can choose to get better, or go the other way and everybody just go to their own individual corners.
"But what we’re going to do is we’re going to get better and we’re going to continue to stay together. Every team goes through some adversity. We’ve been through our ups and downs this past year. And we’re just going to stay together.”
Winning is the ultimate glue. And the Celtics need Walker to find his old swagger to get back to doing it more often.
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