There’s plenty of blame to go around for the Celtics’ listless Eastern Conference Finals performance against Miami. Despite having what many considered the more talented roster, Boston simply couldn’t hang with the Heat, who outworked the deer-in-the-headlight C’s at each and every turn.
Beyond Miami’s superior coaching (the Celtics, for the life of them, could not solve Erik Spoelstra’s 2-3 zone) and Boston’s penchant for disappearing in the fourth quarter, Brad Stevens’ bunch got frustratingly little out of Kemba Walker, who looked unusually tentative throughout the C’s two-month stay in Orlando. The four-time All-Star of UConn fame was slowed by a knee injury during the regular season, averaging his fewest minutes (31.1 per game) since his rookie year in 2012. Kemba showed flashes—he buried the Raptors with one of his signature step-backs in Game 2 of the Eastern semis—but was otherwise a non-factor, at one point enduring a disastrous three-game stretch where he knocked in just 28.3 percent of his shots including 13.6 percent from long range (3-for-22). Even GM Danny Ainge admitted the hobbled superstar didn’t pass the eye test.
“He was definitely not himself,” said Ainge, who sensed Walker wasn’t right even before the Celtics left for the bubble. “He doesn't want to say that. He doesn't say that to our coaches. He doesn't say that to you, the media. He doesn't say that to me. I haven't heard one excuse from him. But watching the games, even the games we won, even the games where he played well, I could tell he wasn't the same physically as he was in October, November, December. So we're going to try to get that Kemba back."
After showing well in the Celtics’ opening-round sweep of Philadelphia, Walker appeared to tweak his left knee early in Boston’s series with Toronto. While the veteran point guard didn’t miss any time, the precision and assertiveness he displayed in Round 1 never returned. With Kemba running on fumes and a similarly beat-up Gordon Hayward only available in spurts, Boston ran into a buzz-saw against the healthier and hungrier Heat.
“Even not at his best, he still averaged 19 or 20 points per game in the playoffs,” said Ainge, crediting Walker for gutting it out at much less than 100 percent. “There's nothing more frustrating for an athlete to be on the biggest stage in the world in your sport and not be able to be yourself. I've been there before as a player. It's not fun. It's stressful. And Gordon and Kemba were trying to do that.”
No stranger to playoff heartbreak, Ainge knows the frustration Walker must be feeling, seeing his first extended postseason (the former Hornet had never won a playoff series prior to this year) end the way it did. “That's why I feel so bad. It's his first time on this big of a stage,” Ainge expressed in comments transcribed by ESPN’s Tim Bontemps. “He gave everything that he had. He played well, but we know that he wasn't himself.”
With Walker, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart all under contract for next season (Hayward can exercise his opt-out clause, though doing so would leave $34 million on the table), the Celtics should be poised for another deep playoff run—assuming they stay relatively healthy—in 2021.