When Danny Ainge signed Kemba Walker to a $141 million deal last summer, it represented a new era for the Boston Celtics. The disappointing Kyrie Irving experiment left Celtics fans with a bitter taste in their mouths. However, the addition of Walker to a team full of young talent has already proven to be one of the best moves of Ainge’s career.
In fact, the sharp-shooting point guard just proved why the Celtics will never regret losing Irving, who failed to deliver when it mattered most.
The disappointing Kyrie Irving era
In search of a bonafide star to build around, Ainge swung for the fences by trading for Kyrie Irving in August 2017. The Celtics had just advanced to the Eastern Conference finals the year before. But by bringing in Irving, the team appeared to have landed a superstar capable of taking Boston to the next level.
In his first year with the Celtics, Irving tantalized fans with his signature crossovers and unparalleled ability to finish at the rim. While the former NBA champion put up terrific regular-season numbers, a knee injury ended Irving’s first season before the NBA playoffs even began.
After watching a young Celtics squad advance to the Eastern Conference finals without him, Irving returned with a point to prove. However, his 2018-19 campaign ultimately ended in bitter disappointment.
Following another strong regular-season performance, the six-time NBA All-Star entered the postseason with an opportunity to endear himself to Celtics fans who wanted to see playoff Kyrie in action. Though Boston scored a first-round sweep, Irving shot under 37% in three of the four contests.
It only got worse in the second round. Against the Milwaukee Bucks, the undersized point guard struggled mightily. After dropping 26 points and 11 assists in a Game 1 win, Irving could not hit a shot to save his life the rest of the series. The Celtics lost the next four games, as Irving hit just 30% of his field-goal attempts. Of course, he signed with the Brooklyn Nets just months later.
Kemba Walker proves why Celtics will never regret losing Irving
Kyrie Irving is gone, and after Boston’s opening-round sweep of the Philadelphia 76ers, he most certainly will be forgotten. Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum, and Jaylen Brown played at an incredibly high level throughout the series. However, Walker’s steady shooting, intense effort, and mature leadership made all the difference.
With Irving running the offense, Tatum and Brown struggled last season. Yet, with Walker in the fold, both youngsters shined against the 76ers. Boston needed a veteran star to help elevate its dynamic wing duo. Against Philadelphia, the former UConn star did just that.
Plus, Walker put up terrific production himself. Unlike Irving, he rarely forced bad shots. Walker shot 50% or better in three of the four games. He turned the ball over just four times. And he even contributed five steals and three blocks in the first-round sweep.
While he still has a long way to go in winning his first NBA title, Kemba Walker has already erased the painful disappointment of the Kyrie Irving era. His mature approach and ability to hit clutch shots is exactly what Boston needed. Unlike his predecessor, Walker stepped up to the challenge and delivered nearly flawless results.
The Celtics face a tough test in the defending NBA champions
The Celtics made a statement by sweeping the 76ers. But Boston’s path to an 18th NBA title got much tougher with the Toronto Raptors scoring a sweep of their own. By taking down an Irving-less Nets team in four games, the Raptors positioned themselves to take on a red-hot Celtics squad.
For Boston, the matchup presents some potential problems. Toronto’s guard pairing of Kyle Lowry and Fred VanFleet may be undersized, but both players possess the ability to hit shots from anywhere on the floor.
Pascal Siakam’s energy and own offensive talents could also give the Celtics problems on defense. Will Brad Stevens use Tatum to defend the athletic power forward? Plus, Boston has to contend with two towering centers in Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol.
Ultimately, the Celtics need Kemba Walker to keep playing at a high level in order to take down the defending NBA champions. If he can continue to set up his young teammates and provide sound leadership on the floor, he may just accomplish that feat.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.