It was the spring of 2014 all over again.
Kemba Walker was facing the Miami Heat in a first-round playoff series, looking to earn some respect. A key teammate had suffered a debilitating foot injury that put the Charlotte Hornets at a significant disadvantage.
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And yet it wasn’t the spring of 2014 all over again. This is an older Walker, a more assertive Walker and certainly a more skilled Walker.
In 2014 it was center Al Jefferson with plantar fascia. Now it’s small forward Nic Batum, out with a left foot strain. Batum is a huge factor in the Hornets’ offensive flow. So there was just one way you could picture the Hornets squaring the series at 2-2. Walker had to play hero ball.
That he did, scoring a career playoff-high 34 points in the Hornets’ 89-85 victory over the Heat at Time Warner Cable Arena.
The Heat has done a fine job of limiting good Charlotte looks at the basket, particularly from 3-point range. Miami guards the 3-point line more aggressively than any other team has this season against the Hornets, and that’s resulted in Charlotte making just 23.5 percent of its attempts from long range.
The Heat can play that way because they have such an impactful rim-protector in center Hassan Whiteside, who grew up in Gastonia and has been a revelation after struggling just to get onto an NBA roster.
Against that style of defense, the Hornets have one solution: drive forcefully to the basket every chance they get and particularly so for Walker and fellow guard Jeremy Lin. For the second game in a row the Hornets dominated points scored in the lane, 44-30.
That compensated for another brutal shooting game from 3-point range: The Hornets were just 4-of-17 from long range.
Walker was great throughout, hitting 13 of 28 shots. But as fans have come to expect, he was extra special in the fourth quarter, scoring 11 points off 4-of-9 shooting.
Walker led the NBA this season in what the league calls "late-and-close" points – scoring in the last two minutes of a tight game. It’s what he’s come to expect of himself, starting from winning a state championship for his Brooklyn high school, then leading Connecticut to a national championship.
It’s certainly what his teammates expect of him. There’s a common expression around the Hornets bench this season during late timeouts. One Hornet or another will turn to Walker, stare him in the eye, and say, "It’s time to win."
I asked Walker what those words signify to him.
"Get us a bucket," Walker replied. "Go out there and be myself. Be aggressive to score, but (if he’s corralled by the defense) get rid of the ball and trust my teammates.
"Throughout my career I’ve made big plays down the stretch. That’s what I’m known for. Tonight was another example."
Not just another example. A shining example of what Walker means to a team chasing relevance in the NBA.