Before stepping out of the tunnel to take on the Toronto Raptors in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals Monday night, Kemba Walker confronted every single one of his teammates with a pre-game “check-up.”
“I’m checking hearts today,” Walker bellowed as he patted Robert Williams on the chest, before doing the same to Jaylen Brown.
“I’m checking hearts today,” re-announced the All-Star point guard as he repeated the same act upon the sternums of Jayson Tatum, Daniel Theis, Semi Ojeleye, Brad Wanamaker, Grant Williams, and on down the line.
Walker, also fittingly known as "Cardiac Kemba," would later elaborate, “I just wanted the guys to be tough. I just thought we got out-toughed [in Game 4]. They just played harder than us and I know what we are capable of.”
It turned out that the Celtics' vital signs were in perfect condition Monday night, as they came out and showed the world exactly what they were capable of. Boston burst out of the gate on an 18-5 run, leaving Toronto in the dust as they went up by as many as 30 points, before cruising to a 111-89 blowout victory.
“I checked my guys’ hearts and they showed it,” Walker emphasized after the game. “Big-time.”
The Celtics felt that they needed to show such fortitude after suffering back-to-back gut punches in Games 3 and 4. They endured a heartbreaking Game 3 loss at the buzzer Thursday night that prevented them from taking a 3-0 series lead, before being thoroughly outplayed and out-hustled by the Raptors in Game 4 Saturday night.
The second loss, in particular, stuck with the C’s over the last two days because they felt that they should have played with more intensity throughout. The difference in Game 5 was like night and day.
“We were really active,” said coach Brad Stevens. “We were really just trying to play hard, as hard as we could. They missed a couple of shots. We missed some shots in the first quarter, but we were playing with great purpose. You could feel that from the get-go.”
The bounce-back effort was a perfect response to the pre-game message that Stevens shared with the media, as he described what allows special teams to stand out from others.
“Special groups have a great resiliency about them,” Stevens had explained ahead of tip-off. “They’re able to compartmentalize what went well, what didn’t go well, and say, ‘I’m going to come back and be the best I can be,’ and realize it’s not going to be perfect. Realize that this is part of competition, and part of being in this arena, and part of being special is you gotta be able to get back up off the mat.”
In particular, Stevens was impressed by Jaylen Brown’s ability to get back up off the mat. Brown had shot a postseason-low 4-of-18 from the field during Game 4, but managed to bounce back with a playoff-best 10-of-18 effort, which helped him to produce a Game-5 high of 27 points.
“Jaylen's got big-time character,” Stevens said. “He's got competitive character, he works, he's focused, he wants to do well. It was good to see him knock in that first shot (on the opening possession of the game), but I don't think it would have mattered if he missed a couple early. He was going to be aggressive and that was good for our team.”
Brown was one of many aggressors for the Celtics, who displayed outstanding collective resilience against the defending NBA champions after being on the receiving end of two consecutive punches to the gut. That, in itself, was the most promising aspect of Game 5 in Stevens' mind.
“The thing I take away that it's not about winning a game, it's not about winning three in a series now. It's about just the process of growth when you show that resilience,” said the coach. “That's what it's all about. You can't go through a playoffs without having heart breakers. You can't go through a playoffs without something bad happening, and you just have to be able to respond. So I thought that's what I take away. I knew we had good competitive character, and you really saw that on display tonight.”
That, and a lot of heart.
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