The safe route for the team ahead by one possession with 34 seconds left is not an off-the-dribble 3. Yet there was Kemba Walker, up three against the Celtics with the game on the line, driving forcefully to the left, drawing away from Al Horford, stopping all velocity, and pulling up above the break. The net already knew to swish.
“This is my shit,” Walker appeared to say after the shot while pounding his chest.
In the end on Monday night, Walker had 43 points on 14-for-25 shooting, and the Hornets had a 117–112 victory that vaulted them back to .500 on the season.
Few scorers can single-handedly will their teams to wins. LeBron James can power his way there, and Steph Curry can get there through finesse. Two seasons ago, Isaiah Thomas’s historic season vaulted a Celtics team still light on elite talent to 53 wins. Damian Lillard’s post-All-Star run last season pushed Portland all the way up to third in the Western Conference. Now it’s Walker’s turn.
Kemba has been on a tear this season. Two nights ago, he dropped 60 points in an overtime loss to the 76ers. On the opening night of the season, he had 41. He’s also had four games with 30 or more. All told, he leads the league in scoring average, with 29.6 per game, and shots from the field, with 21.6. These big nights have become mini spectacles, enough to give Charlotte — a team without much talent or entertainment value outside of Walker — League Pass priority.
Walker has always been in the conversation as one of the league’s better guards, but he’s rarely near the top of that list. He’s been selected to the past two All-Star Games, but he made it last year only as the fourth injury replacement. He’s scored over 20 points a game for the past four seasons, but he’s made the playoffs only twice. As good as he’s been, it was always easy to pigeonhole him as a scorer on a mediocre team. And whatever superstar potential the fiery, 6-foot-1 guard may have has always been suffocated by playing for an uninteresting team in a small market; he’s basically the kid in movies who can’t go off to pursue his dreams because he has to stay home to help his family.
Except now Walker is lifting the Hornets into relevance one dominant performance at a time. Monday’s win was verification: The team with one star outlasted the team with so many that it’s struggling to organize them. Yes, the Celtics are experiencing an Eagles-esque hangover season without a ring to show for it, but it would have been hard to keep up with Walker even at their best. No Celtics player could match Walker basket-for-basket — not Kyrie Irving, not Jayson Tatum, and especially not Gordon Hayward. Walker led UConn past Stevens’ Butler team in the 2011 NCAA championship; seven years later, he was haunting the pair again. Walker scored 21 points on 10 shots in the final quarter on Monday; all Celtics players scored 25 points on 20 shots.
The win pushed the Hornets to 8–8 and eighth place in the Eastern Conference. The franchise has been on the playoff bubble for the majority of Walker’s career, trapped in a purgatory of being neither good enough nor bad enough to care much about. These days, Walker is playing like a man tired of living on the bubble. If he has more nights like this in him, he might be able to pop it all by himself.