The national narrative coming into this season was that the Celtics would take a step back, talent-wise.
With Al Horford in Philadelphia and with the C’s yet to find a true replacement at center, that part was fair. The other part of this storyline was that “Kemba Walker is a very good player, but he’s not quite as talented as Kyrie Irving.”
Come to find out, Walker is not just as good as Kyrie – he might be better.
We certainly know that Kemba is a better leader than Irving, but let’s – for a moment – talk pure skill on the basketball floor.
Kemba’s crossover and step-back shots are unparalleled in the NBA today. He’s a walking, talking ankle breaker.
Kyrie has the best handle in the league, yes, but other than that there is not a thing that Kemba can’t duplicate.
For years, we’ve heard about Kyrie’s elite ability to be a “shot-maker.” Most of this legend stems from the enormous 3-pointer he hit against the Warriors in the closing minutes of Game 7 of the 2016 Finals.
Not taking anything away from Kyrie, there. It was a great shot.
But if Kemba was LeBron James’ runningmate in Cleveland all that time, would there have been that much of a drop-off? Would Kemba have hit that shot against Golden State?
Well, yeah – probably.
We’ve gotten a small taste of it in Boston over the past month, but Kemba is a stone-cold killer with the game on the line. His clutch gene is as strong, or stronger than Kyrie’s.
Kemba carried an average cast of college characters on his back in the 2011 NCAA tournament, lifting UConn past some guy named Brad Stevens and the Butler Bulldogs in the title game. A few weeks before hoisting the NCAA hardware, Kemba hit one of the most famous shots in the history of the Big East Conference – upending Pittsburgh at the buzzer at Madison Square Garden.
Kemba’s critics will point out that he hasn’t done much on the big stage of the NBA, but do a little digger and you’ll find that he does have a strong playoff history in the big league despite a small sample size.
Kemba was dynamite in Charlotte’s first round series against the Miami Heat in 2016, willing that series to seven games before the talent-laden Hornets ran out of gas. In Game 4 of that series, Kemba scored 34 points including one stretch in the fourth quarter where he scored 11 straight Hornets points.
He also put up 29 points in a 2014 playoff game against the LeBron-led Heat.
If you YouTube “Kemba Walker buzzer beater” you’ll find plenty of NBA footage that includes clutch shots against the Raptors, Knicks and Suns.
The big difference between these clutch shots and Kyrie’s clutch shots were that most of Kemba’s ballsy shooting occurred on NBATV, not in front of a nationally televised audience like Kyrie had for so many years with the Cavs.
Kemba has also outdueled Kyrie head-to-head over the years, including a game a year ago in Charlotte when he pumped in 43 points against the Celtics in a 117-112 Hornets win. Kyrie finished with 27 in that one.
Walker was at it again against Kyrie and the Celtics in March, when he pumped in 36 points to Kyrie’s 31. The Hornets came back from an 18-point deficit to win that one as well thanks mostly to Kemba’s 18 fourth quarter points.
Keep in mind that Kemba was doing all of this while playing with guys like Dwayne Bacon and Frank Kaminsky.
Kemba never had the luxury of playing with fellow All-Stars until now, while Kyrie rode on the coattails of LeBron for years. And when Kyrie had to be the Alpha, he failed.
Most everyone outside of Boston still somehow believes Kyrie is the superior player and that’s reflected in the latest MVP odds as Kyrie is the 10th most likely player to win it at +5000 while Kemba is double that at +10000.
Maybe if Kemba’s Celtics continue to have the best record in the NBA, and if Kyrie’s Nets continue to play sub-.500 basketball the rest of the country will take notice.
Until then, Kemba is our little secret.