Kemba Walker, right, was a huge boost as the Celts swept Philadelphia in the first round of the playoffs. Up next is Toronto. Kevin C. Cox/Pool Photo via AP

 

Give Kemba Walker a lot of credit for never outwardly rolling his eyes at the media during the first few weeks of the bubble.

Shortly after the Boston Celtics arrived in Florida, Coach Brad Stevens – in almost a passing remark – mentioned that Walker’s balky left knee was acting up again. That knee bothered Walker throughout the regular season, limiting his production and even his playing time (much to Walker’s frustration).

The media quizzed Walker and Stevens relentlessly in daily Zoom calls about his progress. Stevens made it clear that the Celtics would play Walker sparingly during seeding games, ramping him up toward the postseason.

Walker, meanwhile, clearly grew tired of answering questions about his knee quickly, to the point that a reporter once asked him if he was sick of the queries.

“Yes, I’m definitely tired of answering questions about the knee,” Walker said, before adding, “but I know you’ve got to ask me. So I answer to the best of my abilities.”

Walker’s patience was appreciated, because his status was (and remains) a crucial piece of the Celtics’ playoff run. The good news for Boston: Walker appears to be not only healthy, but dialed in.

It’s not that the Celtics need Walker to be the best player on the floor. But they do need him to be a pick-and-roll killer who collapses the defense, pulls up for triples around screens and creates space for his jumper with his water-bug handle.

Put more simply: They need him to be exactly who he was against the 76ers. In four games against Philly, Walker averaged 24.3 points per game on 49.3 percent shooting despite struggling a bit from deep in the first two games – he finished at 29.3 percent on nearly seven attempts per game, but trended upward significantly in Boston’s final two victories. The Sixers made everything easy for Walker – dropping Joel Embiid deep into the paint, so far back he couldn’t get out to challenge Walker’s shot.

“It’s different,” Walker said after Game 2. “It’s different for me. I really haven’t seen that much space in a very long time to be honest.”

The Sixers – who were focused on Jayson Tatum, but who also got a lackluster effort from their star big man – gifted Walker several games of target practice. Perhaps a little rusty from the rest, Walker floundered at first but found his footing and picked Philly apart. The Celtics, presumably are grateful to the Sixers for the assist. Their next opponent, the Toronto Raptors, might be less so.

Throughout the restart, Walker’s health was prioritized and cultivated, and for that, the Celtics deserve a lot of credit. Walker clearly wanted to play, but Boston never wavered from its commitment to his minutes limit, and the results were obvious. Walker’s burst – which deserted him during the regular season when his knee was at its worst – returned in its full UConn glory.

“I’ve said all along, I felt great about our plan,” Coach Brad Stevens said after Game 4. “Give a lot of credit to Kemba and a lot of credit to our trainers. They executed that plan. That’s not easy to do. And he didn’t like playing limited minutes building up. He didn’t like not practicing. But he got the knee stronger, he got ready to go for trying to be the best that we can be on August 17. We said that from the get go. And I thought he was really good – he was great tonight.”

The last sentence is the important one. With Gordon Hayward done for the foreseeable future and an already-thin bench rotation, the Celtics need their stars to be stars.

Walker, meanwhile, needs to be healthy and dialed in.

The Raptors are a much tougher test than Philly – cohesive and deep with several stars and the NBA’s Coach of the Year in Nick Nurse. Presumably, they have a better game plan for defending Walker than hoping he misses overly comfortable pick-and-roll jumpers.

Fortunately for Boston, Walker looks like he’s ready.


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