By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Looking for a silver lining from Wednesday night’s Celtics loss to the 76ers? Look no further than Kemba Walker’s first half in Philly.
In his second game back for Boston, Walker looked a lot more like the max player that Boston signed two summers ago. Or, at least he did for one half. And that is a reality that we’re going to have to live with while the 30-year-old works his way back.
Walker is still on a minutes restriction as he returns from the lingering knee issue that kept him from being his usual self during the NBA’s bubble action in Orlando, and that led to some odd rotational issues for the Celtics in the second half of their 117-109 defeat. But Kemba was absolutely cooking in the first half, scoring 17 points off 5-for-8 shooting in just 12 minutes of action. The Celtics took a three-point lead to the locker room thanks in large part to Walker’s output.
The rust that Walker showed in his 3-for-13 debut against the Knicks on Sunday was no longer there, with Walker hitting six of his 15 shots overall Wednesday night. Most of his damage was from the three-point line, where he drained five of his nine attempts. While the Celtics appeared to be forcing it with Walker in Sunday’s blowout loss to the Knicks, there was a lot more rhyme and reason to his offense on Wednesday.
Unfortunately, that rhythm he felt in the first half was lost after his lengthy stint on the bench. Brad Stevens stretched out Walker’s minutes restriction slightly and let him play 22 minutes overall on Wednesday, but Walker couldn’t find his first-half groove in the final five minuets of the game. Walker sat out all but 90 seconds of the third quarter, and after playing the first three minutes of the fourth, didn’t enter again until there was 5:03 left in the game. After that hot start in the first half, he missed all five of his attempts in the final frame, finishing with 19 points, six assists and three turnovers.
After Wednesday’s defeat, Walker said that he felt like he could have played more. But he isn’t going to rush anything, not after what happened last August in Orlando.
“I definitely felt like I could have, but I’m really working my way back. It’s going to take some time to get those minutes up,” said Walker. “I’m still trying to get the speed of the game down and I felt like I was a little behind. Just a little bit.
“I’m not going to rush the process. Going to stay focused and not get frustrated,” he added. “We’re going to take it game by game.”
Stevens kept Walker on the bench to start the second half because he wanted him in as a closer late in the game. That left Walker to go with a stretching regimen that would make Tom Brady blush throughout the third quarter, and a lot of time on the bike to stay loose.
“It was tough but I knew. He told me early and I was fine with it,” he said of that long break in action. “I think it was kind of hard to get my rhythm again, but I’m happy to be on the court with my teammates. I’m going to try to get better. I’ll be alright, I’m going to keep playing hard and do what I can to help the team be successful.”
Walker’s second-half drop off didn’t help the Tatum-less Celtics’ cause as they tried to escape with a win Wednesday night, but there is reason to be optimistic that we’ll be seeing some vintage Kemba closing out games in the near future. Walker was still able to make his usual moves against the 76ers, just without their usual results.
“I’m more comfortable just being me; splitting screens, getting downhill, stop and go. Most importantly is my pull-ups. I’ve been shooting pull-ups for many years now in this league and that was something I struggled to get to when my knee was really, really hurting,” he said. “That is one indication that I know I’m feeling a lot better.”
The minutes restriction is a necessity at this point, with all parties learning their lesson after Walker’s bubble struggles. It’s going to create some rotational issues for the Celtics and some rhythm issues for Walker, but the goal of it all is to have Walker at full strength in a few months, even if that means it costs Walker and the team in the present.
Sometime soon, Walker will make a full-game impact on the Celtics. Wednesday night was another promising step in that direction.