Walker hasn’t been his top self since he tweaked his left knee in last February’s All-Star Game in Chicago. He had a solid first season in Boston, but he wasn’t the same in the NBA playoff bubble trying to manage the knee issues and eventually fizzled under the pressure of the Toronto and Miami defenses.
He had his moments but it was nothing compared with his constant scorching of the Celtics while he was with the Hornets. Starting in 2015-16, Walker had a four-year run in which his player efficiency rating was at least 20.6. That streak ended last year when it dropped to 20 and this season Walker’s PER is 15.1. That’s not terrible but far short of All-Star caliber.
With Marcus Smart expected to miss two to three weeks with a calf injury and Jeff Teague (whose PER is 9.5) becoming nearly unplayable at times, Walker needs to respond on this West Coast road trip with his best basketball as a Celtic. He has to take pressure off Tatum and Brown because eventually Boston will become a predictable team if two guys are doing all the scoring.
In Saturday’s 96-95 loss to the Lakers, Tatum and Brown were a combined 25-for-37 shooting for 58 points. The rest of the Celtics were 15-for-45 shooting for 37 points. Walker and Smart were a combined 3 of 19.
So it was no surprise that Walker missed that 13-footer that would have won the game in the final seconds. It was a good look, a shot Walker has drained thousands of times, but he was willing the ball into the basket. He attempted that shot with zero confidence. It was apparent.
“I would have loved to have made some shots tonight, it was a struggle,” Walker said. “Still gotta keep working, gotta find myself a bit, find my rhythm, find my spots. Just continue to get better. I gotta step my game up. Obviously, I’m a little bit disappointed in myself personally but I’ve been around for a minute now and this ain’t the first time I’ve shot the ball bad, to be honest. Just have to look past it, I [have] no choice.”
Walker looked physically right after his return to the lineup two weeks ago and his numbers showed that until the past two games. He was stripped of the ball by San Antonio’s Dejounte Murray Wednesday against the Spurs with the Celtics down 2 in the final minute. With a chance to win the game Saturday, he back rimmed a makeable jumper.
The Celtics are going to need a better Walker from now on. One that can hit open shots, dive into the paint and score and get to the free throw line. It’s paramount because the team’s second-best point guard is rookie Payton Pritchard, who is expected to return from his knee injury during the Celtics’ West Coast road swing.
Speaking of that trip, there are no easy wins over that five-game stretch against the Warriors, Kings (solid at home), Clippers (second-best record in the West), Suns (who always play well against the Celtics) and Jazz (11-game winning streak).
It can’t just be Tatum and Brown doing all the scoring. The organization is rooting for Walker for many reasons, he is a remarkable teammate, one that openly roots for and supports the development of Tatum and Brown.
“Kemba has such a wonderful way about him,” Stevens said. “And he is such like the greatest teammate and he puts a lot of pressure on himself to be really good and I think that (Saturday) they put a lot of attention on him. They had a huge presence on him. It just wasn’t his night. We’re riding Kemba. He is a really good player who really cares about his team and really wants to be a part of something special. More often than not it is his night.”
It’s not that Walker needs to work harder. Shots just need to go down. Like many other standout NBA players, he deals with confidence issues. This league — partly because of social media — can be unforgiving to players who struggle, just ask Paul George.
Walker made it clear following Saturday’s game that he has been getting down on himself. While the Celtics’ horrid second-quarter stretch and lack of defense were the main issues during Wednesday’s loss to San Antonio, they had a chance to tie or go ahead late before Walker’s casual dribble was picked by Murray.
With a chance to give the Celtics a significant win before a difficult road trip, Walker missed the winning shot to cap off one of his worst nights as a Celtic in Saturday’s loss to the Lakers.
“These guys, they look to me, especially when things are going tough, these guys look at me,” Walker said. “I can’t put my head down and not mentally be engaged into the game like I was (Saturday). I have to be better on that end.”