On Friday morning, I was chatting with Kemba Walker about Gordon Hayward. The Celtics had managed to go 2-2 on the trip to that point, and while the club had clearly struggled in some spots and needed Hayward's talents, Walker reached for a silver lining.
“I mean, you always miss one of your better guys, but it's just the circumstance right now,” he said. “He's injured. But I think it gives us a lot of confidence to understand that we can still compete with anybody when he's gone. So when he comes back, I mean, we're just going to be that much better, you know? So that's what it's about. I can't wait 'til he gets back, personally.”
A dozen hours later, the Celtics were staring down the prospect of being without Walker a while.
The NBA comes at you fast.
In the second quarter of Friday's 96-92 loss in Denver, Walker darted into the lane and deflected a Jamal Murray pass intended for Nikola Jokic. The ball was knocked to Marcus Smart, and Walker, now head down, continued on until he came in contact with the block of granite that is Semi Ojeleye's chest.
The All-Star point guard went down and lay motionless on his left side until and for a good while after medical personnel rushed onto the court. A backboard was quickly called for, and eventually Walker's neck was stabilized, and he was taken from the court in a stretcher. (It's worth noting that Walker had neck problems this past summer when playing for Team USA in the FIBA World Cup.)
From that point, the news seemed to get better. Before leaving for the hospital, Walker was still in the ambulance at halftime when Brad Stevens came to check on him. The scans had produced positive results, and when Walker told his coach he was fine, Stevens later felt relieved enough to recount that conversation and crack, “But now I know he's lying all the time.”
Walker was released from the hospital late Friday and rejoined the Celts at their hotel. He was able to fly home with the team Saturday and was to be examined further.
No prognosis or timetable had yet been released, but it was clear the Celtics were preparing to be without another key player.
But this has thus far been a team of great resolve. It goes against general NBA practice by failing to let down defensively when a cold streak of shooting occurs. And there were numerous opportunities for such deflation on this trip, where even the wins over Golden State and Phoenix included periods of chill.
But in all five outings, the C's stayed in the fight. The losses to Sacramento, the Clippers and Denver were by a combined eight points.
“We had (five) games in (eight) days on the road on the West Coast, and everybody is banged up,” said Smart. “Everybody is bruised. We got down. We could have quit. It just shows this team, we kept fighting. Everybody came in, contribute and help. (We) just came up short.”
With Hayward still some four weeks away on the outside from a return from his broken left hand and now the Walker situation, others will have to take on different and larger roles.
When the subject turned to the importance of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, Stevens said, “Everything they do is valuable. But they're not young in a lot of ways anymore, and we need them to be playing like veterans in a lot of ways. But every experience… I think what this does is shows those other guys, you know, Carsen Edwards and Grant (Williams) and Javonte Green, VP (Vincent Poirier) and the new guys, it shows them, like, who you're around, and that's a good thing.”
On Friday, it was Brad Wanamaker who helped lead the charge that took the Celts out of their post-injury fog and eventual 19-point deficit and deliver them to within a point with a few minutes left.
“He was great,” said Stevens, whose esteem for Wanamaker appears to be growing by the day. “He's been one of our best players on the trip, bench or starters. He's been one of our best players, and he really gave us a chance.”
The encouraging news on Walker allowed the Celtics to think a little more about basketball when Stevens addressed them afterward.
“He said every possession matters,” recalled Brown. “We put ourselves in a hole a little bit early by the way we played, but he actually applauded us. We could have quit or gave up, and we had a chance to win the game.
“With those guys we've got in this group — Marcus Smart, (Daniel) Theis, JT, the guys that have been here, Brad Wanamaker, who has been playing great — the makeup we have in this locker room, we all always have a chance to win, because we have some true fighters and warriors on this team.”
With a second starter now out, said fighters will have to fortify their armor for the upcoming campaigns.