Some NBA players become so transcendent that their signature “move” becomes almost as famous as the athletes themselves. James Harden’s euro-step/flop. LeBron’s weird jab and point before a three. Kyrie Irving even brought back the Shamgod. Delving deeper into league history reminds us of Tim Hardaway’s crossover, Tim Duncan and the bank opening, Kobe Bryant’s fade-away, and Carmelo Anthony yelling expletives during rebounds. They become so synonymous that you have kids mimicking these moves in their driveway.
How many kids in the world at this moment are outside in their driveway mimicking the Cardiac step-back?
Since Kemba Walker joined the Celtics last summer, Boston has not lost a playoff game. They dispatched a hobbled and dysfunctional Philadelphia 76ers squad in the first round and have taken a 2-0 lead vs. the defending champion Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference finals.
On a strict minutes restriction during the NBA Bubble’s regular season, Walker has been unleashed in the playoffs, much to the delight of Husky fans everywhere. And for intersecting UConn and Boston fans, it’s been a “pinch-me” moment every time he steps on the court.
After averaging 24 points per game in the Sixers sweep, Walker has faced a much tougher defensive test from Toronto. Deride Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet all you want, but they’re bigger, physical guards that make life difficult for guards like Kemba, and that’s not to mention the length the Raptors possess in the lane.
In Game 2, Walker started off an ugly 0-8 from the field, with Raptor bigs aggressively chasing Walker off screens. Celtics fans were holding their breath every hedge, astutely watching that knee for any awkward collisions that those screens can cause. Through three quarters, Kemba was a putrid 2-14 from the field, and the Celtics were facing an eight-point deficit. Then, with Marcus Smart doing his best Shabazz Napier impression, Kemba took over. The two combined for 27 points on 9-of-10 shooting to outscore the Raptors by themselves and take a commanding 2-0 series lead.
The Raptors and their championship pedigree did not go quietly into the night, however, and Boston was only up one with 41.6 seconds on the clock. Cue the step-back:
THE CARDIAC STEPBACK pic.twitter.com/pUW4slY389— Boston Celtics (@celtics) September 2, 2020
Look familiar? People don’t forget.
"Step-back. WALKER ... CARDIAC KEMBA!"— ESPN (@espn) March 10, 2019
8 years ago today, the legend was born pic.twitter.com/QETCE0jR6s
Indulge a basketball nerd for the moment; the two plays are practically perfect from an execution standpoint. There’s the high ball screen from Jamal Coombs-McDaniel/Jaylen Brown in the middle of the court. Gary McGhee and Serge Ibaka have to switch, or else Kemba has an easy path to the lane, either with his right or his left. But the strongside help (VanVleet) can’t sag over too much, for fear of the shooter. This is why the screener has to be a threat to shoot, and not just a big like Theis or Alex Oriakhi. It’s a two-man game intent on creating mismatches, something Jim Calhoun and Brad Stevens are notorious for. It puts a player such as Walker in a perfect situation to use his speed and ability to stop on a dime, and with proper floor spacing, it’s practically unguardable.
Who else in basketball has done something like that in college, then proceeded to ritually abuse the best players in the world with the same move over the following decade? He’s no Gary McGee, but Serge Ibaka is a tremendous defender. Everyone knows it’s coming. The NBA is a boneyard littered with ankles that Kemba has snatched in his nine years in the league. The only difference is that now he’s doing it on the biggest stage in the playoffs.
All of this is no surprise to UConn fans who of course have followed his career closely. But now marching into the playoffs, Kemba is getting a chance to remind casual basketball fans around the world what he’s capable of.