By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — It pains me to write this, but where are you, Kemba Walker? As someone who celebrates the man’s entire catalog, it hurts to say that he is killing the Celtics right now.
Walker signed in Boston to win, but he’s done more for the team’s losing over the last week-plus. He scored 19 points in the Eastern Conference Finals opener on Tuesday night, and even gave the Celtics a few chances to beat the Heat, but Boston wouldn’t have needed those heroics — or an overtime period — had Walker been better (a lot better) earlier in the game.
Kemba was just 6-for-19 overall in Game 1, and an abysmal 1-for-9 from deep. He has shot just 14.7 percent from three-point range over Boston’s last five games, with the Celtics 2-3 over that stretch. In each of those five games, he’s hit just one three in each while attempting 34 shots. That 5-for-34 is making Boston’s quest for a bubble banner a lot more difficult.
At least Kemba is still Kemba off the court, holding himself completely accountable for his struggles.
“I’m just playing terrible to be honest,” he said after Game 1. “Not much I can say but I have to be better. I have to do better for this team on both ends of the floor. I have to make better decisions. I just have to make shots overall.”
It was Toronto’s box-and-1 defense on Walker that gave him issues last series. On Tuesday, Boston head coach Brad Stevens credited Miami’s guards and big-man Bam Adebayo from keeping Walker from being his usual self.
“Some of the guards are able to keep in front with their length, and then Bam was switching a ton of pick-and-rolls all day,” said Stevens. “Bam’s a tremendous defender. So we’re going to have to figure out, again, better ways to attack. Especially late. I thought that we really moved it at times and then we did get stagnant.”
When Kemba isn’t going, the Boston offense is out of whack, relying too much on Tatum to do everything. There were stretches early in the game when Stevens relied more on Brad Wanamaker (who had an excellent game off the bench) more than Walker. His defense was also fairly abysmal throughout the game, with Goran Dragic and Tyler Herro dominating their matchups against Walker with relative ease.
There are some signs that Walker may be turning a corner. After struggling for the first three quarters on Tuesday, he looked much better in the fourth and overtime, scoring 10 of his 19 points off 4-for-8 shooting. He even gave the Celtics a one-point lead with his signature step-back jumper with 23.2 seconds left in OT.
That would have been the game-winner if Boston held on, but Kemba’s make went to waste when Jimmy Butler went down and beat Jayson Tatum for a three-point play, followed by Tatum getting rejected by Adebayo on the other end. Walker was that close to giving the Celtics a 1-0 series lead. And it’s not the first time his late-game heroics have gone to waste. His excellent feed to Daniel Theis for a go-ahead dunk at the end of Game 3 against the Raptors was erased when OG Anunoby sank the game-winning three with 0.5 seconds left.
Tuesday night’s loss is on Boston as a whole, as the team once again struggled to close out their opponent. But that also falls on Walker’s shoulders, since his early struggles allowed the Heat to stay within striking distance. And as the team’s point guard, he should be the one to initiate ball movement on offense. That was non-existent for most of the fourth quarter and overtime, which helped the Heat mount their comeback.
It’s rare that Walker has back-to-back off nights, but he’s now up to three straight poor performances at the worst possible time for the Celtics. Boston needs him to turn it around and fast, otherwise the team’s hopes of bringing a title back from Orlando are toast.