Late last month, after a pitiful stretch in which they lost eight out of 11 games to fall below .500 and briefly out of the top-eight in the Eastern Conference, media members across the country started pre-writing obituaries for this season's Boston Celtics. But those posts will have to stay in the drafts folder, at least for now.
On Tuesday night, the Celtics held off the Los Angeles Clippers for an impressive, hard-fought 117-112 win -- their third in a row. Now 18-17, the Celtics are back into a tie for fourth place in the East and starting to build some momentum heading into the All-Star break.
A key reason for both the win and the generally positive trend in Boston is that Kemba Walker is finally starting to round into form after returning from an offseason knee procedure. He finished with 25 points and six assists, both of which were team-highs, and carried the Celtics for a stretch in the third quarter when the Clippers were threatening to pull away.
Walker was truly woeful when he first returned to the court this season, and shot just 34.2 percent from the field in his first 10 games. That was cause for some genuine concern outside of the organization, but those in the locker room never doubted their veteran point guard.
"He's a huge part of us, if we're going to be what we want to be," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said last month. "And I really, really believe he will be that guy."
Against the Clippers, and over the past few weeks, Walker has shown exactly why his coach kept the faith. Tuesday night was his fourth straight game with at least 20 points, and he's reached that mark in seven of his last nine outings. Check the numbers during that stretch and they look awfully similar to last season.
Last 9 games
But obviously numbers aren't the only story. Watch the film and you'll notice all the trademark Walker moments are starting to reappear. First and foremost, he has that spring back in his step. He almost skips into the pick-and-roll, creating a little energy and momentum which he uses to get the defense off-balance.
Most important from a personal scoring standpoint, Walker has also found a rhythm with his pull-up jumper again. He's one of the best in the league at stopping on a dime and shooting off the bounce, and when he's hitting shots like this it adds a much-needed extra layer to Boston's offense.
Then, of course, there's the way that Walker helps gets everyone else involved. The Celtics are ranked No. 27 in the league in assists this season, averaging just 22.3 per game, and much of that is because they've played so many games without one or both of Walker and Marcus Smart.
They still desperately need Smart back, but Walker helps solve a lot of the issues in regards to ball movement -- especially now that he's playing more like his old self. He's a wizard in the pick-and-roll, and not just because he's a threat to score himself. Just look at these two PNRs with Robert Williams and you'll see how well he reads the game and manipulates the defense.
First, in the third quarter, he comes off the high screen and Williams rolls to the rim. Luke Kennard cheats over from the corner to take away the lob, so Walker jumps in the air, freezes the defense and then whips a pass to Payton Pritchard for a wide-open 3-pointer.
Then in the fourth quarter they run the same action again. This time there's no one there on the backside to protect the rim and he tosses a perfect lob to Williams for a huge alley-oop.
But as sharp as it is, his pick-and-roll play isn't the only thing that makes a difference. Let's look at a few possessions in the second quarter where the Clippers switched to a zone.
Walker doesn't do anything brilliant here, but over and over he makes the right pass and keeps the ball moving to eventually create an easy bucket for Tristan Thompson.
Simple plays like that aren't going to get much attention, but they're vital to maintaining a healthy offense. It's little surprise that over this recent hot streak for Walker, the Celtics' offensive rating with him on the floor is 114.2, and when he sits it falls to 107.6.
The Celtics aren't completely out of the woods yet, nor is Walker all the way back to his old self. But his recent play is a clear sign that tales of their demise were a bit premature.