Kemba Walker had tasted the playoffs before he arrived in Boston.
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The first experience with Charlotte was a quick 4-0 series sweep against the Miami Heat in 2014. Two years later, the Heat beat the Hornets in seven games.
The All-Star had never won a playoff series after eight seasons with Charlotte.
That all changed in his first season with the Celtics, who swept the Philadelphia 76ers on Aug. 23 in the opening round and take on the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference semifinals starting Sunday.
"This is the reason I came to Boston, to be able to play in the playoffs and advance," Walker said. "I’ve always felt like I’m a winner. I want to play at the highest level. I’m able to do that now, and it’s really exciting."
Walker averaged 24.3 points, 4.3 rebounds and 3.8 assists and shot 49.3% from the field against the Sixers. In the final two games of the series, he scored 24 and 32 points and was 18-of-35 shooting, including 7-of-17 on 3-pointers.
"As happy as I am that we won, I’m even happier he’s getting a chance to experience this," Jayson Tatum said. "He’s never been out of the first round. He’s been in the league for a very long time. To be able help him get there and experience this together, it’s fun, and hopefully it’ll continue."
Walked began the restart on a minutes restriction as he rebuilt strength in his left knee, and he wasn’t happy about it.
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"He didn’t like playing limited minutes building up," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. "He didn’t like not practicing, but got the knee stronger, got ready to go for trying to be the best we can be on Aug. 17 (start of the playoffs). We said that from the get-go."
But it was the right plan, and it’s worked for both Walker and the Celtics.
Walker signed with Boston during free agency last summer — after Kyrie Irving decided to leave for the Brooklyn Nets. Irving was once considered Boston’s long-term solution at point guard when the Celtics acquired him from the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2017. But even as early as the start of the 2018-19 season, there was suspicion that Irving might not stick around.
Walker has been the perfect fit alongside Tatum and Jaylen Brown on the perimeter. The three averaged at least 20 points during the regular season and are averaging at least 21 points in the playoffs. While Walker is the point guard, he doesn’t always have to be the ball-handler on every possession. That allows the Celtics to give teams different offensive looks throughout a game.
"I think the difference is just the players that I have," Walker said. "We have a lot. We just have so much on the perimeter."
Raptors coach Nick Nurse doesn’t like coaching against Walker but loves his game.
"He’s got such great energy in a lot of ways," Nurse said. "Not only is he fast up the floor, he can score. He exudes this love of the game. He exudes that he’s a great teammate. He plays with a smile on his face a lot. I was lucky enough to coach him at the All-Star Game this year. He’s an utter joy to be around. There’s a lot to love about him. He brings a lot to their team. He’s an All-Star. He’s a hell of a player. He’s fast and quick and has energy and loves the game and he’s fun to watch. He’s hard to coach against, but he’s fun to watch."
Stevens noticed that love of the game right away. Shortly after Walker signed with the Celtics, Stevens invited him to dinner. After eating, they began watching film, establishing their relationship.
"He really loves basketball and he loves all the good stuff about it — that’s team, competing, playing both ends," Stevens said.
That love of the game has helped put the Celtics in reach of the conference finals. And brought greater joy — and potential — to this Celtics team.
Follow Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Kemba Walker enjoys first taste of playoff success with Celtics — and now he wants more
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