The Celtics led the Raptors by 2 points with a little less than a minute left in Game 7 on Friday night, and point guard Kemba Walker dribbled the ball inside half-court and knew it was time to make something happen.
“He basically looked at me, ‘Don’t call a timeout,’ ” coach Brad Stevens said. “And he looked at the other guys, ‘Stay spaced.’ And it’s a pretty special feeling to know that guy’s got the ball.”
With the shot clock winding down, Walker blitzed past Raptors guard Fred VanVleet. When Pascal Siakam came over to help, Walker slid a no-look pass to Grant Williams, who was fouled under the hoop.
Williams missed both free throws before Jayson Tatum grabbed a rebound and was also fouled, and the Celtics held on for the 92-87 win. But Walker’s late drive was an example of an unwavering self-confidence that seems to put those around him at ease, too.
For the last two games of the series, Walker was mostly flummoxed. The Raptors spent about half of the time playing a box-and-one defense that was centered on stopping him, and it worked. And even when they eased out of that formation, the scars seemed visible.
In Games 6 and 7, Walker combined to make 7 of 27 shots overall and 2 of 13 3-pointers for a total of 19 points. But he was there when his teammates needed him most.
“I struggled last game,” Walker said after Game 7. “I struggled this game, but it wasn’t no quit in me. My teammates, they encouraged me so, so much tonight. They made me keep my head high. And you know, much credit to those guys, I could have easily got down on myself, but they wouldn’t let me. And they held me down. That’s what a team is for.”
Stevens knows how important Walker is to this team’s success. Even as Walker was scuffling through three quarters in Game 7, Stevens drew up a play for him before the start of the fourth and told him to shoot. Walker curled off of a Daniel Theis screen and drilled a 3-pointer that stretched Boston’s lead to 75-71.
While Walker credited his teammates for keeping his spirits up, they credited him for continuing to push forward with an eye on team success. He is a four-time All-Star, but he did not force plays to try to remind everyone of that fact.
“It’s just a great feeling to have a player like Kemba, who’s the ultimate competitor, unselfish,” Celtics guard Marcus Smart said. “He doesn’t care if he scores 30 or 2 points; he just wants to win. Coming into this series he knew they were going to try to pick on him because of his height, and he held his own.”
Even though these Celtics are quite young, many already have deep playoff portfolios. The upcoming matchup against the Heat will be the third conference finals appearance for Smart and Jaylen Brown, and the second for Tatum.
But Walker made the postseason just twice during his eight years with the Hornets and did not advance past the first round either time. This is all so refreshingly and excitingly new, and he’s savoring every minute, now just four wins from the NBA Finals.
“It’s big-time,” Walker said, “a special feeling for me.”
Said Stevens: “I’m really happy for him. He deserves to experience this. He’s everything that’s good about basketball. He loves the game. He’s a great teammate. He doesn’t care if he gets any of the glory. He’s just a special guy. Guys like that deserve to play on these stages and for all the marbles, and I’m glad he gets to keep doing it.”