Nothing Kemba Walker does on a basketball court is random.
That wasn’t always the case, and he’d be the first to say so. Now there’s a plan inside his head no matter what the score, situation or time remaining. He’s probing, he’s calculating, he’s formulating, and that’s what has made him one of the NBA’s most dangerous scorers so far this young season.
Saturday, with five-tenths of a second remaining, the calculation was something that is counter-intuitive: miss a free throw. The Hornets led by one against the team that has been their tormentors for so long. If Walker to could hit the rim with the right ricochet, game over. But there was risk.
Risk enough that coach James Borrego was concerned the Heat would get the rebound, advance the ball with a timeout and somehow get the ball through the basket for yet another perplexing Hornets loss in Miami.
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They had lost 14 of the past 16 here at American Airlines Arena. They suffered a humiliating 33-point defeat in Game 7 of the playoffs in May 2016. And now, after leading by as many as 26 points, they were counting on an intentional miss for their salvation.
“I’ve been in situations where you have to miss a free throw, and you try to miss and make it,” Walker said after the 113-112 victory. “It was tough! My main goal was shooting it as soft as I could (and still hit the basket) and it went front rim.
“Time was up; they couldn’t do much.”
This game was so full of story lines. Walker’s 39 points put him over 10,000 for his career. He set an NBA record for 3-pointers made in the first three games of a season, with 19 (including seven Saturday).
The Hornets improved to 2-1 for Borrego and did it in the home of their nemesis.
And they are now on the path to finding what Walker needs most: a true second scoring option.
‘I got you, Bro.’
Walker deserved to be the center of attention post-game, but the significant secondary element was Malik Monk’s fourth quarter, when he scored seven of his 15 points.
Starting shooting guard Jeremy Lamb had fouled out with 7 1/2 minutes left, and Walker was near exhaustion. So Monk strode over to Walker.
“He came to me and said, ‘I got you, Bro.’ He literally came to me” to deliver that promise, Walker recalled.
And then Monk made good, hitting a 22-foot pull-up and a 3-pointer less than a minute apart when there was little else going right for the Hornets.
This was what Walker was talking about Friday after the victory in Orlando over the Magic: He can be this team’s first option, but he can’t carry the Hornets every game and it result in collective success. Someone has to demonstrate both the talent and the guts to be more than a helper bee.
Monk didn’t fare well as a rookie; his shot-selection and his defense were often suspect. But no one has ever questioned his ability or his self-confidence.
“My confidence is always going to be there,” Monk said after the game. “I’m not going to lose that ever.”
That jumped to the forefront when all hell was breaking loose Saturday.
“He saw that I was struggling, and he took two tough shots. That’s who he is!” Walker said of Monk, the 11th pick out of Kentucky in the 2017 draft. “He’s tough, he makes big shots. He did it in college. That kid is so talented. I’m super excited for him.
“He took so much pressure off everyone.. He’s so confident, and I love it. You have to have guys on your team like that.”
The hanging question
And even more so, you need a centerpiece like a Walker. Back in the spring of 2011, he had just led Connecticut to the national championship. But there were questions whether a 6-foot-1 player could adapt what he did in college basketball to excel in the NBA.
Hornets owner Michael Jordan saw it differently. Watching Walker in pressure situations reminded Jordan of how he played, in winning six championships with the Chicago Bulls. He advocated for the Hornets to strongly consider Walker.
That’s proven to be the best decision by this franchise since the NBA returned to Charlotte in 2004. In July, they must decide whether to make a massive investment to retain Walker, or allow him to go elsewhere in free agency.
Walker has said repeatedly he wants to stay in Charlotte. General manager Mitch Kupchak has said repeatedly it’s his and Jordan’s desire that Walker finish out his career as a Hornet.
The intricacies of the NBA collective bargaining agreement make it a practical impossibility to resolve this before July. But once summer arrives, if Walker keeps providing what these first three games have been, is there really any other choice to make?