After last night's 112-109 loss to the Miami Heat, the Boston Celtics now find themselves down 3-1 in the Eastern Conference Finals. They looked like title contenders while fighting tooth and nail with the Toronto Raptors in the second round of the bubble playoffs, but have come out flat against the Heat in nearly all regards. The play is sloppy for long stretches, they don't seem to have any cohesiveness, and despite spending most of the second round playing against it, Boston still can't figure out how to attack a zone defense. For a team stacked with lottery-level talent, the play has been almost shockingly poor.
Suffice to say, things have not exactly gone according to plan for Boston. This is no more true than in the case of Kemba Walker. The reason he left Charlotte, a city and team he seemed to love, was to win at the highest level. When the Celtics swept the Philadelphia 76ers, it marked the first time Walker had ever advanced past the first round. Despite getting some load management treatment during the scrimmage games, Walker seemed up to the challenge of his first taste of high-intensity basketball.
Then the Raptors broke out a box-and-one zone defense to shut him down in Game 6 of the second round, and it has been all downhill from there. Over the last six playoff games (which includes Game 6), Walker has shot 37 percent from the field and a paltry 28 percent from three-point land on eight attempts per game. He's averaged 2.7 turnovers a game in that stretch as one of Boston's primary ballhandlers in the pick-and-roll. A career 86 percent free-throw shooter, Walker has shot only 72 percent from the charity stripe in that stretch. He's averaging 17 points per contest, which is adequate, but through only six made field goals on 15.8 shots per game. His net rating over this stretch is -8. This is all coming in 41 minutes per game, minutes in which Walker is the biggest weakness on an otherwise stellar Boston defensive lineup.
Walker has always been a bit of a streaky shooter. In Charlotte, he just shot through his slumps, because who else was gonna shoot it? Miami and Toronto's wall of long-armed, athletic defenders is the perfect counter-punch to Walker's preferred playstyle. He can't blow by anybody when there are two other defenders waiting for him in the paint and he's not a good enough passer to make something happen on every possession when that's the case. His most dangerous shot, a pull-up three off a screen, has completely deserted him. Playoff basketball at this point is much, much different than anything Walker has faced before. There are plenty of reasons as to why Walker might struggle, and they all make sense.
But when a berth to the NBA Finals is on the line, the why doesn't matter. No team can afford to have one of their top options dominate a good chunk of the possessions in a game and then shoot sub-40 percent from the floor. That is especially true when Walker, try as he might (and he does try hard), is giving up nearly as many points on defense as he can muster on offense. Everything Walker does well has deserted him, and when that happens, his weaknesses as an undersized point guard become even more glaring.
Walker is making $28 million this season. He was not paid that money to make sure Boston coasted to a decent regular-season record only to become a negative on the court when the basketball matters most. It's difficult to stay on the floor during playoff basketball at Walker's size because the opposing team will hunt him relentlessly to exploit his defensive shortcomings. But that hasn't stopped players like Steph Curry and Kyrie Irving from thriving in a playoff atmosphere. Walker can't shoot like Curry or penetrate defenses like Irving, but he's supposed to be near their level. When Boston needs him most, he's been anything but.
He simply hasn't risen to the occasion. Miami has made life difficult for Walker, but not impossible. He's had open looks. He just hasn't made them, and he, along with his teammates, tend to turn the ball over at the worst possible time with careless play. Time is running out for Walker to be the offensive force Boston needs him to be. If he can't step up and the team can't channel the 2020 Denver Nuggets to win the next three games, it'll be a long offseason for Boston's star point guard.