Heading into the season’s restart, Boston Celtics point guard Kemba Walker was one of the league’s more important on-court question marks, as Boston’s highest-paid player, assist-rate leader and second scoring option. Early on, lingering discomfort in his left knee forced him to play on a minutes restriction, and before the bubble, he had passed the 20-point mark only two times since Feb. 1. Even given the production of young stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, it didn’t seem possible for Boston to win four straight playoff series without Walker’s offensive firepower.
But despite some inconsistent outside shooting in Boston’s first-round playoff series against the Sixers, Walker managed to average 24.3 points per game and rediscover his All-Star footing. In Sunday’s commanding win against the Toronto Raptors, he finished with 18 points and 10 assists. But without Gordon Hayward, who badly sprained his ankle in the first round, the Celtics will need Walker to consistently carry an even greater burden throughout Round 2, against one of the stingiest and most adaptable defenses in the NBA. For coach Brad Stevens, the answer should be found by turning him loose in a simple sequence that has brought opponents to their knees all season.
Walker is a pick-and-roll maestro. He can score in so many ways: stop on a dime, pull up for three, skip his way into an elbow jumper, or slide downhill, squirm his shoulders by a much larger defender and finish at the cup. However, to zoom in even more, whenever he has two screens to work with, Boston’s attack reaches another level.
According to Second Spectrum, the only player who had more double picks set for him in the regular season was Atlanta Hawks point guard Trae Young. Walker averaged 8.75 per game, and in total he ran more than 14 entire teams.
For the Charlotte Hornets, Walker also found himself using double picks quite a bit, but in Boston, his volume has skyrocketed. Last season, he averaged 8.76 double screens per 100 possessions. This year, it was 13.66, placing Walker in the 93rd percentile (or fourth highest out of the 61 players who used a double screen at least 100 times). What separates him from the pack is his wild efficiency. Walker averaged 1.15 points per chance (83rd percentile) while squeezing out a lucrative 127.5 points per 100 possessions (85th percentile) for the Celtics.
In other words, when Boston’s offense looks like an outhouse, these plays turn it into a villa; there are few recourses more logical than giving Walker the ball and having two fellow Celtics set a screen in the middle of the floor. The play provides countless options for him to choose from, as a pair of skilled teammates position themselves to pop or roll. Walker is nimble, perceptive and skilled enough to punish defenses in too many ways for them to wrap their arms around. These plays either hit the other team with a punchy burst of shotmaking or unfold slowly until a mistake or mismatch can be pounced upon.
The hope behind setting two screens at the same time is that it will maximize confusion and impart the game with a degree of chaos that benefits the offense. When someone as fast as Walker is the initiator, defenders are never not on their heels. Trapping him is futile, given that few big men can contain Walker in space, and dropping too low lets him feast in areas where he’s very comfortable.
Watch how smooth Boston’s offense runs after Brown screens Josh Richardson off Walker and forces Tobias Harris to switch in the play below. Less than a second later, Enes Kanter pancakes Harris, allowing Walker to skate toward Joel Embiid, who has zero interest in leaving the paint. With Brown occupying Richardson’s attention and Harris not wanting to leave Kanter all alone, Philly has nobody near Walker when he rises at the elbow.
Don’t switch, and the result is a cleaner version of the same thing:
Misdirections and Easter eggs develop out of this basic formation, too. Notice below how Walker starts out on the left before he slaloms right at midcourt. The Grizzlies hedge and recover in response to Tatum’s first screen, but that was just a decoy. The real action occurs when Daniel Theis flies over to set a flair screen for Brown on the weak side.
And in transition, when the Celtics are able to give Walker a double drag screen, the threat of his outside shot makes big men feel like they’re in no man’s land until he blows past them for a layup.
Even though Walker’s double-pick opportunities have dropped slightly on a per-100-possession basis since the season came back, he has still scored the third-most points in the bubble in double-pick situations. And according to Second Spectrum, his points per chance in those spots is up in the 89th percentile, too.
Going forward, in Hayward-free lineups, the Celtics may want to give Walker as many chances as he can physically handle. He has had success running them against his second-round opponent. Toronto, which allowed the fewest points per possession when facing a double pick this season. The Celtics scored 1.4 points per possession when they provided Walker with a double pick against the Raptors during the regular season; no player who had at least 10 openings here has been more efficient.
It’s against such athletic and versatile teams that Walker’s shifty handle comes in handy; he might be the best player in the NBA at using a live dribble to lead his man into a screen. As one of his former coaches, Steve Hetzel, told me a few years ago: “Good pick-and-roll defense is when the defender gets into the ball-handler to try and negate separation on the screen.”
That’s incredibly difficult when he combines such a spontaneous live dribble with two screens and one of the most devastating pull-up jumpers in the league. (According to NBA.com, 76 players averaged at least four pull-up field-goal attempts this season, and Walker had a higher effective field-goal percentage than all but four of them.)
Corralling Walker in space is a lot like poking a bumblebee with a toothpick. Here are a couple of plays that show why. The first starts with Marcus Smart forcing Kyle Lowry to switch, then letting Walker immediately go into a middle pick and roll with Rob Williams.
If you’re brave enough, put yourself in Terence Davis’s shoes. A split second after you switched onto Walker, you have to prevent him from using Williams’s screen. For a moment, things appear to be going well … and then Walker reaches into his bag and chars your ankles as Williams flips the screen and creates a wide open free-throw-line jumper.
Here’s him doing similar work against Pascal Siakam:
We’ve yet to really see it this year, but the beauty of putting Walker in a double pick with this specific roster is that it lets Boston directly involve all three of its best players in a way that puts each of them at an advantage on their man. Even if it’s just to get Tatum or Brown isolated against a smaller defender, or turn them into playmakers staring at a four-on-three edge, this formation creates problems for anyone trying to slow it down.
There’s a popular, perfectly rational narrative about the Boston Celtics that essentially says the height of their playoff ceiling will be set by Tatum and Brown. In many ways, this is true. Neither is older than 23, but both already have a flashing green light to be aggressive with the ball and are stone solid guardrails for one of the NBA’s sturdiest defenses.
Compared to Walker, they’re no longer variables but fixed integers that make Boston the title contender it is. And instead of wondering how far Tatum and Brown will take them, the more pressing issue is Walker’s function. The Celtics have myriad weapons at their disposal, even with Hayward out for the next few weeks. But when they want to break the backs of their opponents, few options are better than putting the ball in Walker’s hands, giving him two high screens, then sitting back to enjoy the show.
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