By Sean Sylver, 98.5 The Sports Hub
Kemba Walker and his knee are on everyone’s mind as the Boston Celtics reboot their season in the bubble tonight against the Milwaukee Bucks.
The All-Star point guard, who shot 31 percent across a bumpy February and March, played all of nine minutes in a scrimmage leading up to the restart. While he looked in sync against the Suns, with a drive to the hoop and a three off a screen accounting for his field goals, it’s clear Brad Stevens is taking a conservative approach with the veteran floor general.
On Thursday, the coach told the media that Walker would see 14-20 minutes against the Bucks and sit during crunch time, setting the bar low as he finds his rhythm.
Walker shared last week that he was comfortable scoring less if it meant more from Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
Some found the words refreshing, particularly coming off last season’s ego-fueled catastrophe. Others found it interesting a big money veteran with a banged-up knee would so quickly defer to younger teammates.
But Walker’s words echo exactly what was going through the minds of pragmatic Celtics fans when he signed here. The departures of Kyrie Irving and Al Horford last offseason left volume and leadership gaps, both of which Walker filled. He’s an upper echelon NBA player, but he wasn’t supposed to be the top gun on a championship team.
That’s supposed to be Tatum.
With the third-year forward emerging as an All-NBA talent and Brown continuing to up his game in his fourth year, a healthy Walker who scores less but serves as a floor leader that can still hit big shots in the fourth could absolutely be a key ingredient to a championship recipe.
But health is step one.
Let The Chips Fall…
Prior to the shutdown, I was very concerned with Boston’s ability to overtake Toronto for the 2-seed in the East. That would’ve meant a first round matchup with Orlando or Brooklyn instead of Philadelphia or Indiana, two teams with giant frontcourts who were battling for the fifth seed (with the resultant sixth place team facing third place Boston in round one).
Now, Indiana is down All-Star Domantas Sabonis. Key reserve Jeremy Lamb is injured and former All-Star Victor Oladipo’s playing status is still up in the air. The Pacers are a lot less deep and scary than they projected to be. Should they wind up in sixth, that matchup favors the Celtics.
Should Philly finish sixth, well, that’s a different story. The Sixers grabbed three of four from Boston in the regular season and Ben Simmons appears healthy.
Grabbing the 2-seed eliminates that first round uncertainty. But it would also take a Herculean effort to close a three-game gap with Toronto over eight games, even if the Celtics have one of the easier schedules and the Raptors have one of the hardest. Boston also has to build up Walker over those eight games to have a chance at getting the best version of him for the playoffs.
Maybe the 3-seed isn’t all that bad.
While Celtics could have run out a squad of Lilliputians for Tuesday’s scrimmage against the Rockets, navigating the Eastern Conference will almost certainly require productive play from their big men.
Enes Kanter was effective off the bench in the team’s first scrimmage against Oklahoma City, and while Daniel Theis got his clock cleaned by Steven Adams, he played hard and posted a nice line.
The questions about Boston’s efficacy in the paint remain the same as when the season started nine and a half months ago. And the answers are the same, for now: Theis starts and gets the lion’s share of minutes, while Stevens looks to Kanter for production off the pine.
Injuries and the pandemic have prevented Robert Williams III from logging significant minutes since December, but many view Williams’ ceiling as a hybrid of Kanter and Theis’ best qualities. It will be interesting to see how much Stevens plays Time Lord during the seeding games, and if his play translates to quality minutes in a playoff scenario.
The season resumes at a breakneck pace (eight games in 12 days) starting with Friday’s matchup against Milwaukee.
Bucks point guard Eric Bledsoe did not suit up for scrimmage action after testing positive for COVID-19 and will not play. Pat Connaughton faced a similar situation and will also sit.
The Blazers follow on Sunday, with a Heat-Nets back-to-back Tuesday and Wednesday. A potential second round preview with the Raptors looms Friday.
Sean Sylver can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. Talk hoops with him on Twitter @TheSylverFox.