Kemba Walker Has to Step Up His Play For the Celtics to Earn NBA Finals Berth

Toronto Raptors v Boston Celtics - Game Six
Kemba Walker | Pool/Getty Images

Each day brings a new experience for Kemba Walker. While he, like everyone else, has probably gotten accustomed to life in the NBA bubble at this point, it's different for Walker because he's never lasted this long in the playoffs. Not even close, in fact. When the Boston Celtics beat the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round, it marked the first time in Walker's career he advanced to the second round of the playoffs. Once the Celtics took down the Toronto Raptors, Walker was booked for the first Conference Finals appearance of his nine-year career.

But Walker didn't play a very big part in advancing Boston past Toronto. In fact, at points it felt like they won in spite of Walker. The Raptors completely stifled Walker by switching to a box-and-one zone defense halfway through their second-round series. That basically means that every time Walker wanted to run a pick-and-roll, the most effective way to get himself going, he was faced with two or even three defenders as soon as he turned the corner to try and drive to the basket. No pull-up threes were available. Most of the Celtics' possessions in Games 6 and 7 started with Walker trying to run PnR and being forced to pass it because of how many defenders were waiting for him around the free-throw line.

This resulted in two very bad games for Walker. He shot 2-of-11 in a Game 6 loss and 5-of-16 in the deciding Game 7. He hit timely shots in both games, sure, and was able to make up for some of his poor shooting with good passing and as tough defense. But scoring a combined 19 points over two playoff games where he played nearly 100 (!!) minutes is unacceptable for a max contract player. The Raptors sold out to stop Walker, and as the best all-around defensive team in the league, it worked to perfection. But Walker can't let that happen against the Heat.

Without Gordon Hayward for at least the first half of this series, Walker simply has to produce. It's not just about how many points he can put up, since most of the time Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown can make up for him in that department. But Walker's ability to collapse the defense transforms the offense from very good to elite, especially in crunchtime minutes. The Heat are a well-coached defensive team, but unlike Toronto, there are weak links in their lineup. Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro are not Fred VanVleet or OG Anunoby at that end of the floor. When Walker drives, it forces the defense to scramble. Usually that means a mistake is made or a mismatch occurs in Boston's favor, whether it's Walker on a big man or Brown/Tatum on a smaller wing. That never happened against the Raptors even when Walker was getting to the basket because they're just so damn good defensively, but it must happen against Miami.

Erik Spoelstra is no fool, though. He didn't spend his free time idling after his team took down the Milwaukee Bucks last Tuesday. He was watching Boston-Toronto, and he knows Walker struggles with penetrating zone defenses. The Heat don't have the personnel to play box-and-one as often as Toronto did with consistent success, but he'll definitely be utilizing all sorts of zone defenses to throw at Walker and the Celtics, who have struggled with zone defenses as a whole under Brad Stevens.

There will be a lot of man-to-man defense played, because that's Jimmy Butler's strength, and Bam Adebayo's ability to switch isn't as effective when playing zone. But that won't be a guaranteed win for Walker, who was so thrown by Toronto's zone that even on the rare occasions they switched to man-to-man he couldn't get a good shot. If Walker shoots sub-40 percent like he did in the latter half of the Toronto series, the Celtics are toast. He has the ball too often to shoot that poorly. Boston may very well have finished the series off during the Game 6 double-OT marathon if they didn't try and give the ball to Walker so many times in the last few minutes, but it's Kemba Walker. His resume suggests it's usually a good idea to let him run the show, even if Tatum or Brown are performing better that night.

Walker simply needs to figure out how to score when facing zone defenses, whether that's driving to the hole with reckless abandon or regularly settling for the mid-range pull-up jumper that he loves so much. After facing nearly an entire series of that kind of defense, a star like Walker should be able to make the adjustments necessary. But while defenses have sold out to stop Walker for his entire career to this point, he's never done it with these kind of stakes and this level of play before.

When Walker is cooking, Boston's offense is cooking. Miami knows that and will act accordingly. Whether Walker can finally counter after failing to do so in the previous round will decide how this series will go, and if he can finally make it to the promised land with an NBA Finals berth.