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More wiggle room for the Boston Celtics

Published: March 25, 2005
Section: Arts, Etc.


It is the waning moments just before halftime in a road game against the woeful New Orleans Hornets at the tail end of their lengthy road trip. The Celtics, hoping to escape from this game with their prolonged winning streak intact, are trailing by a slim margin in the second half. On this particular fastbreak play, vocal point guard Gary Payton takes a hard fall out of bounds attempting to secure a loose ball. He finds himself crouched underneath the basket, wincing in pain with an upper body injury. To his rescue come a pack of first place Celtics, led by none other than godsend Antoine Walker. Following him are several of the many youngsters on the Celtics roster.

Lets rewind for a minute to mid-December when there was not this team first attitude present. Payton, aka The Glove, at the most would have only one or two teammates rush to his aid, more out of team obligation than anything else. Mind you, Payton s not a likely candidate to win any popularity awards amongst his teammates, as he frequently criticizes and lashes out at them.

On February 24th the Celtics reacquired Antoine Walker from the Atlanta Hawks. Anyone who wants to get on Danny Ainges case just has to look at this teams current seven game winning streak and comfortable first place lead in the Atlantic Division. However, Walkers impact on the Celtics has gone beyond the increased appearances in the win column. His emergent presence brings something even more important than his contributions to the more subtle nuances of basketball. The 69 power forward has rejuvenated a strong sense of clubhouse chemistry and unity that cant be coached, especially on a team with such a disparity between youth and experience.

Prior to Walker s arrival, the team had a silent, aloof captain in Paul Pierce. The little emotion that The Truth has shown has truly been consistent of arrogance and frustration. Theres the aforementioned Gary Payton, who is certainly vocal enough, however overly negative more often than positive. Walker brings a blend of both positive emotion and veteran experience to a young team that desperately needed both traits.
Anytime you bring in an energy guy who competes and is one of your better players it helps your clubhouse, Coach Doc Rivers said.

Walker is always upbeat. He loves the intensity of the game, Rivers added. Walkers presence has been so welcomed because he has served as a bridge between the younger players and the more experienced veterans. He has been particularly attentive to young rookie Al Jefferson, who also occupies the power forward position.

I know Im gonna have somebody to teach me a lot of things. I know its gonna be a good thing for me, Jefferson said.

As of February 1st the Celtics were clinging onto their hopes for limping into the playoffs. Going into Wednesday nights game against the New York Knicks the Celtics are nine games above .500. Life is good now for those few remaining fans of pro basketball in Boston. In terms of the team, outside of Ainge, no one is more thrilled to have employee #8 back in town than Pierce. Sure, Pierce is still the go-to-guy at the end of games. But, he is more relaxed as a result of the trade. He is no longer the only scoring option on the floor and doesn t feel the pressure to put up Iversonesque numbers on a nightly basis.

Only Delonte West rivals Walker in terms of time spent after practice working on technical aspects of his game such as foul shooting. Sure, Antoines not your typical star player going through the prime of his career. The big man s got a lot to prove being in the tail end of his contract year. He is coming off a sub par season in the Lone Star State and is out to prove his worth. Not to mention how hungry he is for post season success after falling short three years ago and only weeks ago being light years away from smelling the playoffs.

The Celtics (understandably so) have been the back page news story of the Boston newspapers with the championship runs of the historic Red Sox and Patriots. Because March is a relatively dead time in professional sports, the local media has had no choice but to catch on to this team.

Noted Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy has already written several front page sports columns about these guys. The local network stations are starting to dedicate nearly half of their sportscast some nights to the Celtics, while as before Celtics coverage was no more than half a minute. Practices over at Health Point have increased about 500 percent in terms of media coverage.

In terms of the game itself, Antoine has led by example on both ends of the court. On offense he has matured through cutting back on the three point attempts and careless turnovers. Forget the plus seven three point attempts per game. He is sticking to playing down on the block, focusing on rebounding, thereby sticking to his strengths. A double-double is nearly expected of him each night.

When the team has their well known lapses of concentration on the defensive side of the ball, Antoine is the spiritual leader there to pick everyone up.

He s always gonna play defense and play hard, Payton commented.

The Celtics have had the luck of the Irish as far as injuries ago. Despite relatively minor setbacks to rookies Delonte West, Al Jefferson and Tony Allen, and nagging injuries to big men Raef LaFrentz and Mark Blount, the Celtics have had more or less a clean bill of health. Coupled with the fact that they are getting hot, while the play of their eastern conference competitors has gone south of late, things are looking up for the Celts. As the standings are set currently, the Celtics are actually closer to the defending champions Pistons than they are to the second place 76ers.

Will Walker join the ranks of Tom Brady and Curt Schilling amongst the great Boston sports heroes delivering championships? Most likely not. Nor will he join the ranks of B.K. Kim and Vin Baker amongst the recipients of poor trades that Boston has partaken in the past.

Bottom line, the Celtics have not been this close to Banner #17 in seventeen years.