We all have those people in our lives.
The good friends who you can go a while without seeing, but the second you’re reunited, you pick up right where you left off as if no time passed at all.
That was Kemba Walker and Daniel Theis on Wednesday night.
Despite the 117-109 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, the Celtics center came off the bench for a 23-point, 11-rebound triple-double. And many of those points seemed to come off assists from Walker, whose 19-point, six-assist night benefitted from help with Theis in the pick and roll.
“Kemba gets a lot of attention on the pick and roll, he’s one of the best pull up 3-point shooters in the whole league, so we know as soon as he’s gonna start making shots that the bigs got to commit more to him,” Theis said in his postgame media availability after the loss. “Then he’s got his little jump pass he’s throwing to me. It’s fun. It’s fun and I’m happy and everyone is happy to have Kemba back. He’s going to be great for us, and he’s drawing a lot of attention putting pressure on the defenses when he starts off a game like he did today.”
Theis has had his ups and downs to start the season while adjusting to his role within the center rotation, having to occasionally play the 4 after starting at 5 all last season.
Brad Stevens wasn’t surprised in the slightest to see Theis have his best game of the year while playing so well off Walker in the starting point guard’s second game back.
During the 2019-20 campaign, the pair were a +6.5 per 100 possessions while together on the court. Their chemistry still was evident against Philadelphia.
“They’ve had a great connection from Day 1,” Stevens said after the game. “How Theis finds Kemba, both in transition and in the half court and how Kemba I think has a good feel for the speed of his roles, where he’s going to be, when he needs to be there, all that stuff. That was one of the reasons I thought Theis at the start really really separated himself because he had a great way of finding others and making them better. I thought he played well tonight. He did a lot of great things, not just the shooting obviously, but the way he got in and out of screens and I thought he fought defensively. And that’s a hard guy (Joel Embiid) to guard, obviously.”
Here are some other takeaways from Boston’s loss to Philadelphia:
— Joel Embiid’s free throw shooting, or the Celtics’ inability to get to the line, was a point of criticism for Boston on Wednesday.
Marcus Smart would be the first to admit that.
“He shot, alone himself, 21 free throws. Our team shot 20 of them. Can’t beat that. They shot 36-for-45, we shot 13-for-20 (from the line). Hard to win that way,” Smart said of Embiid and the 76ers’ effort at the charity stripe.
“It is tough. Especially when we’ve got our hands up a lot of the time and (Embiid) flails and he gets the call and then down on the other end, we got our guys attacking the rim and getting a lot of contact and we’re just not getting the whistle. It’s tough to play like that, it’s tough I mean if the roles were reversed I’d do it every time. I’d be on too, if every time I threw my arms up or got touched I’m going to the free throw line. It’s kind of hard not to get in a rhythm that way when you shoot 21 free throws alone and they allow you to hack on the other end. It’s tough, but we battle.”
Smart may have been disappointed with the way the game was called, but Walker and Stevens pointed out that the team needs to do more to help the bigs defend guys like that without fouling.
But at the same time, what are you going to do when Embiid, one of the best centers in the NBA, decides to go off for 42 points and 10 rebounds?
“He’s gonna score some, but 42 is too much,” Stevens said. “It’s going to be hard to win a game when the best player on the other team gets 42 points, right? So you have to go back to how can we be better?”
Walker believes it’s by helping each other better against a threat in the paint like Embiid.
“Embiid is smart, he knows how to get fouled, he understands that part of the game and he’s been doing that for a while now,” Walker said.
“He has a huge body. There’s not much you can do but to foul him sometimes. You know, it’s tough. We just have to be more conscious and we’ve got to help. We’ve got to help our bigs, stopping Embiid is not a 1-on-1 thing. That’s close to being impossible. You can stop him a few teams but you have to count on your teammates to help stop that man.”
— With Walker’s minutes restriction, Stevens experimented by having Walker sit a majority of the third quarter after the guard went off in the second.
He returned to the floor late in the third to be there for Boston down the stretch in a close game.
Still, it’s difficult to get hot again when your time on the court is managed with a long break like that, and the Celtics coach acknowledged such while discussing Walker’s performance.
“I thought he did a pretty good job today,” Stevens said. “It’s hard to play five-minute stents and then don’t play for however long it was before he went back in at the end of the third quarter. But we’ve got a lot of guys on the bench that do that and it probably gives Kemba a better appreciation for all those guys and being called on at unique times and always having to be ready.
“But he’s got his burst, which is really encouraging.”
Of course, Walker himself felt like he could have played beyond the team-imposed limitation. He did his best to conceal any potential frustration, though.
“I think you know the answer to that,” Walker said, when asked if he felt like he could have played longer.
“I mean, yeah, I definitely feel like I could have. But I’m really just working my way back, man. It’s going to take some time just to get those minutes up. I’m still trying to get the speed of the game down and I just feel like I’m a little behind — just a little bit. I’m getting back, I’m not going to rush the process, just really stay focused and not get frustrated. I’m trying to do that as best as I can and yeah, we’re going to take it game by game.”
Walker said it was tough to get into a rhythm, but he’s trusting the process laid out for him by the Celtics training staff. And more than anything, he’s just happy to be back on the court with his teammates and feeling better.
The guard was asked what the biggest difference is between how he felt now and the last time he played in the bubble.
“Everything,” he answered.
“Just my movement is a lot better. I’m more comfortable just being me, you know. Splitting screens, getting downhill, stop and go. Most importantly is my pullups, I’ve been shooting pullups for many years not in this league and that was something I struggled to get to when my knee was really hurting so that’s one indication that I know I’m feeling a lot better.”
— While Walker’s return has been long awaited, the Celtics still were without Jayson Tatum, who didn’t accompany the team on their road trip, and Robert Williams, who didn’t play with just one practice under his belt since his own bout with COVID-19.
Upon Tatum’s return, we’ll finally get to see what the core of this team is made of.
“I think we can’t put too much pressure on Jayson. Even if he’s back for Friday’s game he’s been in quarantine for about two weeks,” Theis said. “But I can’t wait until we have everybody 100% back and just play the season.
“We have a deep rotation, we have a really good team, and now with Kemba back, and then (when) we have everybody back we can play Celtics basketball. That’s what we’re going to do.”
— Boston remains in Philadelphia and will face the 76ers again Friday. Tip-off is slated for 7:30 p.m. ET before the Celtics return home to host the Cleveland Cavaliers on Sunday.