Robb: Kemba Walker’s return begins a search for answers for Celtics

(Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

Saying Kemba Walker’s return to the floor did not exactly go as planned Sunday would be a bit of an understatement. The Celtics had been playing with a great sense of urgency and purpose heading into the matinee contest in the midst of a surprise five-game winning streak without their All-Star guard in the fold. A reeling Knicks team that came into town during a five-game losing streak looked like the perfect opponent for Walker to shake off some rust against while facing a minutes limit of 20 in his season debut.

With just a pair of full practices under his belt, Walker struggled mightily with his shot (3-of-13 FG) and passing feel (five turnovers) over 20 minutes of action as might have been expected with such a long layoff. The worst news for the Celtics? He was probably one of the best 2-3 Celtics on the floor on Sunday afternoon despite that woeful performance. Whether the rest of the roster was underestimating the Knicks or simply taking their foot off the gas as Walker returned, most of the team no-showed this game en route to the franchise's worst home loss in 14 years. Bad effort, bad execution and historically bad shooting delivered the lowest scoring output of the Brad Stevens era (75 points).

It was a performance the head coach was happy to chalk up as a clunker, the first one of the year through 12 games for Boston.

“I don't believe that's who this team is,” Stevens said of the effort. “I do believe that we have to play really well to win. Our margin's not big. And so I think for the most part, we've done that through the first 12 games. Today, we had a clunker and you hope to have as few of those during an NBA season as possible. But inevitably, you will have a couple. That doesn't make it any easier in the moment. That doesn't make it any easier as you're going through it and watching it. We just looked like we were in mud today. And credit them, they didn't and I think that that's the gist of it.”

The greater importance of this game for the big picture in Boston of course involves the return of Walker to the floor. From that standpoint, Sunday was a small win, albeit the first of many tests for Walker as he attempts to stay healthy in a delayed start to a compressed schedule.

The point guard has modestly downplayed his knee pain for much of the last 12 months as he admirably fought through the chronic issue with mixed results. However, after getting his feet wet during his first game action in four months following a stem cell injection and a lengthy rehab plan, Walker pulled back the curtain a bit on how much the pain had slowed him down in 2020, particularly in the Orlando bubble.

“At one point it was like, mentally that’s all I could think about,” Walker admitted when asked about the pain. “Like, on the court, in the bubble, that’s all I could think about was my knee. Every step I took, every move I made, it was something, even when I wasn’t playing. Now I’m out there and I’m trying to do a step-back and the first thing out of my mind is like, ‘Damn, this is probably going to hurt.’ Not even worried about making or missing the shot, it’s just about the pain.”

For the first time since the early months of 2020, that pain was no longer a worry on Sunday.

“Today when I’m out there, I’m making the moves I normally make and I don’t feel anything and it’s joy. I’m excited. I put in a lot of work. I really attacked my rehab to get where I’m at, and I want to continue to build off this and just try to stay healthy. That’s the most important thing.”

While the shots did not fall, Walker’s play looked like the guy we saw at the beginning of the 2019-20 campaign from a physical perspective. He attacked pick-and-rolls aggressively, made quick reads with the pass and did not shy away from contact at the rim. He made mistakes but those did not stem from lacking a gear he had in past years.

“I felt really comfortable making my moves. Pain-free, which I haven’t been for a very long time,” Walker said after playing 20 minutes. “It feels weird actually not having pain, if that makes sense. It’s kind of a weird feeling. I’ve been hurt for a very long time so I was really just happy to get out there, just super excited. It was fun, can’t wait to get back out there.”

The challenge of course now for the Celtics and Walker is to ensure Walker stays that way as the games come fast and furious. Walker did take a shot to the ribs from Nerlens Noel that ended his afternoon a little early but told Stevens afterward he was no worse for wear. The Celtics will likely continue to take a very conservative path with their point guard as they inch his minutes up in the coming weeks, while also resting him on back-to-backs. However, it’s going to be essential for Walker to be upfront with Stevens and the training staff to avoid a repeat of the Orlando bubble where Walker’s play dropped off sharply as the games piled up with increased pain.

"He has a tendency to tell me everything's okay, thumbs up, and all that stuff,” Stevens said. “I thought, as anybody would have predicted with very limited practice time, there were parts that he probably felt a little rusty. But as far as physically moving up and down the floor, all those types of things, I thought he looked good.”

Beyond the physical component of his return, the work also begins now for Brad Stevens and the front office for judging how best to utilize Walker amid the stellar starts for Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum.

While Tatum remains sidelined for NBA health and safety protocols (his return timetable for this week remains unclear), the Celtics spent a good chunk of their historically bad offensive outing on Sunday deferring to Walker a bit too much on the