The first hint was in the first quarter when Kemba Walker finished a breakaway layup by slowing down, jumping slightly backward into the oncoming defender, drawing a foul and finishing a three-point play.
The second was his nine points in 40 seconds, punctuated by a drive and change of direction foul, that started to break the game open in the second quarter.
If we didn’t get the feeling that Walker was feeling like his old self yet, he punctuated his point in the third when he blew by Trae Young and quick-jumped Clint Capela to beat the shot-blocking big with a layup.
The exclamation point came in the fourth, when he victimized Capela again with another quick-jump, this time bouncing off the right foot to out-fox him again, drawing the and-one.
Kemba was “Kemba” again.
“Kemba’s been really good,” Brad Stevens said after the 121-109 win. “We struggled through this stretch, and there’s been a lot of angst and a lot of talk, but in three of the last four games Kemba’s played, we’ve won, and in all four games, he’s played pretty darn well.”
In this age of immediate gratification, we’ve all become Homer Simpson bemoaning the flash fryer that cooks a buffalo in 40 seconds.
“40 seconds? But I want it now.”
And so as people clicked away on online trade machines, finding ways to jettison Walker, the nearly 31-year-old guard continued to adjust to life with a left knee conspiring to take away the thing he loves most.
For Walker, ball really is life. But, for it to continue to be so, he has to accept certain realities. Right now, the 34 minutes he played in this game was his absolute limit.
“If they come back and send that game into overtime, I probably pull him,” Stevens admitted. “We probably don't finish with him.”
In years past, Walker might have pushed for some more minutes, or joked with the media about asking to be on the floor more.
“It just is what it is. To be honest, they just not going to let me play,” he said with a laugh. “It really don't even matter, to be honest. Even if I wanted to play, which, c'mon now, everyone knows I want to play. It's been set so just try to take it. It is what it is.”
Part of this is certainly a level of maturity that comes when an athlete understands there’s more sand at the bottom of his hourglass than at the top. “It is what it is” is a phrase that comes with the general understanding that the audacity of youth has given way to the realities of age.
But just because the odometer has more miles on it, it doesn’t mean you can’t open the car up on the highway. It just means it takes a little longer to warm up, and maybe you have to be a little more mindful of your RPM’s as you shift.
And so Kemba’s return to form was always going to take time, and so time is what he’s been getting. He isn’t playing back-to-backs, which is part of the plan. Danny Ainge admitted that Walker probably could play in them, but there’s no point in risking it. The goal here isn’t February wins, it’s making sure Walker is ready to do everything asked of him come playoff time.
However, the added rest doesn’t hurt.
“I know this sounds crazy, but that extra night off, there's a reason he looks fresher, right?” Brad Stevens joked. “I think any night that those guys get, they're probably going to have a little bit extra bounce in their step. I thought Kemba’s been great in the last week. Obviously that's been a little under the radar with his well-chronicled struggles."
Walker’s quick-jump (a trademark move from small guards who jump off the wrong foot on drives to the rim so trailing bigs can’t time the jump and block the shot) was unveiled for the first time this season. Asked earlier this month why he hadn’t been using it, Walker promised it was coming, and that getting back in his bag of tricks was a process. On Friday night he delivered.
"You can tell he's coming along each and every game,” Jayson Tatutm said. “He just ... looks like just a lot more like himself. That's what we all expected. So hopefully we can get him out there more often."
That’s the goal for Walker, who has been patient with his recovery and plan of attack. The Celtics and Walker have settled on a path for him to accomplish what he and the Celtics want. Even after this game where it was proven that patience is a virtue when waiting for Walker, it’s still clear he’s not 100% back. There are still moves, like his signature change of direction move into a pull-up jumper, that he hasn’t whipped off.
But, he’s getting there.
“I feel really good. Having fun, just getting stronger every day.” Walker said “(the knee strengthening program is) helping me a lot. Just really staying on top of things, just keeping up my work, that's really it. Like I said, it's just helping me get stronger and stronger.”