Kemba Walker knew before the game that the Charlotte Bobcats faced a nearly impossible task: Beat the Miami Heat without the Bobcats’ best player on the floor.
It would only be possible if Walker had an extraordinary night, the kind that he had throughout early 2011 when he willed Connecticut to both the Big East and national titles over 11 remarkable games.
For awhile, it looked like Kemba just might do it. But Miami eventually beat the Bobcats, 109-98, to sweep the series despite Walker’s 29 points, five rebounds and five assists.
Walker’s last game of this season was a promise that, if he continues to develop, he can become one of the NBA’s elite point guards. Remember, he is only 23. And Walker has shown steady improvement every year he’s been in the NBA.
“He played a good series,” Charlotte coach Steve Clifford said. “This was good for him... He showed he’s not afraid of the moment. He had a really good year and finished it in a good way, so we should all be happy with him.”
Walker scored 10 of Charlotte’s first 12 points, shooting the ball with impunity in an obvious attempt to make up for the 20 points a game the Bobcats lost with Al Jefferson’s absence.
“He was playing in another gear in that first quarter,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said of Walker. “He’s a competitor. They got a good one.”
Jefferson was out with a plantar fascia injury he suffered in the first quarter of the first playoff game against Miami. Think about walking through a field of broken glass and you can start to imagine how Jefferson was feeling.
So the Bobcats decided to play without Jefferson on Monday night, which was the right thing to do. Down 3-0 in the series and with Jefferson in all sorts of pain, it made sense – but it also left Walker in a difficult spot.
He tried hard to work his way out of it, like he always does. Walker’s very first shot of the game was a 26-foot three-pointer. It swished.
As Walker led, his teammates gained confidence and followed. Charlotte held an improbable 54-52 lead at halftime.
Walker’s scoring had slowed by then, but he was still everywhere, making far better passes out of double-teams and keeping the ball moving much more fluidly than he did Saturday night in Charlotte’s first playoff home loss to Miami. Walker is generously listed at 6-foot-1 (Jefferson jokes that Walker is really 5-foot-2). Yet Walker had three blocks – yes, blocks – in the first half.
After Game 3, LeBron James had talked about how hard Walker was to guard. “Kemba is a very tough cover,” James said. “Very fast. Very shifty.”
How fast he really is showed up in the second quarter, when Walker made the sort of play you usually can only get away with in high school.
With the shot clock nearing zero and in all kinds of trouble at the three-point line, Walker simply heaved a shot toward the basket and sprinted after it. The ball didn’t hit the rim but banked off the backboard, where Walker somehow corralled it and scored. It was the old “pass-it-to-yourself-off-the-backboard” play.
When Walker makes plays like that, it’s easy to believe what Jefferson told me before these playoffs started.
“It’s his team,” Jefferson said of Walker. “I told him from the beginning, ‘You are the point guard. You are the player they are trying to build this team around. You are the star of this movie.’ ”
Alas, reality and the third quarter eventually set in for the Bobcats and Walker. The talent disparity showed itself, and the Heat started making the three-pointers they had missed in the first half.
By the end of the third, that two-point halftime lead for the Bobcats had morphed into a 13-point deficit, as James grabbed the game by the throat and wouldn’t let go. Charlotte never really got close in the fourth.
After a decade, the Bobcats’ name will be retired without a single playoff victory to its name. Walker made 11 of his 15 shots and played 43 minutes, but it wasn’t enough.
Still, Walker controls where this team is headed as it becomes the Hornets.
Jefferson is the present. But he’s 29 and has 10 years worth of NBA mileage on his body.
Walker is the future.