Celtics

Antoine Walker's not a Maine man

197883.jpg

Antoine Walker's not a Maine man

By Rich Levine
CSNNE.com

PORTLAND, ME Antoine Walker doesn't belong here.

That was my initial and everlasting thought Thursday night as I watched the newest member of the D-League's Idaho Stampede navigate the court in front of a packed crowd of 3,045 fans at the Portland Exposition Center.

Does he deserve to be here? Yup.

Can you understand why he's here? Yup.

Considering everything that's happened over the past few years, is he lucky to even be here? Yup.

But he doesn't belong here. That much is for sure.

As he moves around, you can see the Walker that Boston once grew to love, and then hate, and then love again and then hate a little more. Essentially, there are still glimpses of 'Toine.

He's unstoppable in the post. It doesn't matter if the defender has a height advantage, or a width advantage or is far more athletic; when Walker gets the ball on the block, it's all over. He still has the little baby hook. He still has that sort of half-floater from the lane that never uses the backboard. He still has that ridiculous move where he'll be stuck underneath the hoop, surrounded by defenders with no where to go, and then release the ball from his knees, block out the opposition with his ass, and watch as the rock floats off the glass and in.

He still likes the three-ball, even though it doesn't like him. He still runs up and down the court on his tiptoes, while moving his arms in a manner better suited for a tap dancer. He's still streaky, emotional, and not what you'd call the world's most inspiring defender.

Right now, his biggest issue is conditioning, but even though he's considerably out of shape by professional basketball standards Walker scored 25 points and grabbed 8 rebounds in 33 minutes of action on Thursday night, and didn't have a very difficult time doing so. If he were in peak condition, he could have scored 50, and, considering this was only his fourth game back, you expect that conditioning will come.

But the game is still there. He's still an NBA talent. And NBA talent doesn't belong in the D-League, or at least not talent the likes of Antoine Walker which is something that may have been lost through all the Walker-related craziness of the past few years.

Over that time, he's become a punch line the new poster child for today's irresponsible athlete. He's a guy who made more than 100 million in his career, but now has nothing. And because of the absurdity of the situation not to mention Antoine's lightning rod of a personality a lot of laughing has been done at his expense. But behind all the jokes secretly lie the same basic skills that allowed him to make all that money to begin with.

The skills that took him to three All-Star games. The skills that helped him become the only Celtic in the last 30 years (other than Larry Bird) to average 20 points and 10 rebounds for a season. The skills that helped him initiate a brand new era of Celtics fans.

With all that's happened to the team, and Walker himself, it's easy to forget the impact that he had in Boston after the Celtics selected him with the sixth pick in the 1996 draft. But the impact was real. In fact, if you were born in the '80s, there's a good chance Antoine Walker was the first Celtic you ever really connected with. It could have been Reggie Lewis, but he was gone too soon. Walker was the guy. He made the Celtics cool again.

The reason is, if you're 30 or younger you probably don't remember much about the original Big 3, or, really, those powerhouse teams of the '80s in general.

That's not to say that they don't exist in your mind. You remember little things, like the fact that DJ used to dribble the ball 1,000 times before every foul shot or that whenever the other team scored a basket, Robert Parish would walk down the court with his arms up, setting the world's longest moving screen. You remember Ainge's feistiness, McHale's craftiness and Bird's general greatness, but you never really got a chance to appreciate it. It's hard at that age. You liked watching basketball, but you didn't understand it. Basically, these guys were great, but you never really knew why.

Anyway, Bird retired after the 1992 season.

In 1993, Kevin McHale hung them up, and Reggie Lewis who was about as close as you can come to being THAT guy played what would become the final game of his career.

In 1994, Robert Parish fled for Charlotte, and just like that your father's Celtics were gone. And your Celtics were a mess.

The team didn't have anyone worth trading, free agents (other than Dominique "The Human Jump Shot Reel" Wilkins) didn't want to come to Boston, and the front office couldn't draft to save their lives. In fact, starting with Bird's retirement in the summer of 1992, here's whom the Celtics selected over the next four drafts:

1992: Jon Barry (refused to play for the team)

1993: Acie Earl (wish he refused to play for the team)

1994: Eric Montross (one year after drafting a center, and one pick before the Lakers took Eddie Jones)

1995: Eric Williams (nice player, but not getting anyone excited)

That's brutal. At this point, older Celtics fans were surely frustrated, but they had just lived through one of the greatest stretches in NBA history. They had all those real memories and real championships. Younger fans had nothing.

Then, in 1996, the Celtics grabbed this kid out of Kentucky, and everything started to change. The older fans never liked Antoine much, and I guess they had their reasons. Boston isn't a city that necessarily embraces change, and Antoine, the new face of the Celtics, couldn't have been any more different than the guys who led the teams of the '80s.

But for those of us who didn't have the power of comparison, Antoine was it. He wasn't just a decent player. He was a star. You got to watch him in All-Star games, see him on the cover of magazines. He even had a commercial! He was Employee No. 8, and he made baskets!

We'd seen Dee Brown in commercials before, but that was because he dunked with his eyes closed. Walker was getting attention because he was a mega-serious talent. We'd never had that before. It was fantastic.

He was happy, devoted and energized. And even though the teams he played on were awful, he made those teams tolerable. He kept fans, especially the younger ones, alive during a time when they all could have dropped off the face of the Earth.

Then, two years later, Paul Pierce came along, and things began to change. Not because of Paul, but because of Antoine.

Early in his career, Walker had played on some of the worst teams in the league, and that allowed him to get a little crazy, take chances, and play outside of the box with limited repercussions. But with Pierce on board, the Celtics finally looked to be building something. People started taking it more seriously. Now there wasn't room for all of Walker's wackiness. Fans became frustrated, and the crazy thing is, Antoine seemed to feed off of it.

For instance, during the 1999-2000 season Pierce's second Walker shot a still-career-low 25 percent from three-point land. It drove fans (and coaches, I'm sure) nuts, but then again, he was taking only 3.5 a game, so it didn't necessarily kill the C's. Still, this was a guy who we knew could post up any forward in the league. He had all sorts of ridiculous moves on the block. And he was a great passer (when he wanted to be), to boot. And now he was wasting his time missing jump shots?

So what happened that next season? Antoine's 3.5 three-point attempts per game ballooned to 7.4 that next season, and 8.0 the season after that, and 7.5 the season after that. From 2000-2003 no one in the NBA jacked more three-pointers than Antoine, and he was only making 34 percent. Maybe he knew that this was becoming Pierce's team. Maybe he was frustrated with a decline in touches. But he acted out. He acted different. And by 2003, his connection with Boston had been severed. He was a recluse. It's not that he didn't care about winning, but he was only willing to do it his way. That, unsurprisingly, didn't line up with new GM Danny Ainge's strategy, and Walker was traded to Dallas in the summer of 2003.

The move was shocking only in that Antoine Walker was no longer a Celtic. Parting ways with him made complete sense.

Everyone cheered when he came back that next season with the Mavericks, got excited when he came back for a few months in 2005 and were a happy for him when he won the 2006 title with the Heat. But it wasn't the same. And through all that time, not too mention all the insanity of the past few years, the connection between fans and Antoine Walker "NBA All-Star" has basically disappeared.

It's hard to think back to those days in the mid-'90s when he cared so much, played so hard, didn't have any money and realized that basketball was the only outlet for him to make some. That guy barely exists.

But I saw glimpses on Thursday night in Portland.

Of course, he's much older now. But he's not that old. In fact, he's 13 months younger than Ray Allen, three months younger than KG and four years younger than Shaq. There are plenty of guys who he was drafted with Allen, Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Marcus Camby and to a lesser extent, guys like Erick Dampier, Jermaine O'Neal and Zydrunas Ilgauskas who are still contributing to the league. He still has some gas left in the tank.

And now, for the first time since those first few years in the league, basketball is all he has, and basketball is the only way he can make a better life for himself. He's motivated, energized and, believe it or not, happy. He's knows he's never going to be an NBA All-Star again, but why can't he play in the NBA?

When you think about it, there are big guys called up all the time from the D-League, and I'm telling you, if Antoine Walker can get in shape, he will be the best big man down there at least as it translates to the pro game. If the right opportunity comes along, why wouldn't someone make a play at him?

If I'd read that paragraph before my trip up to Portland, I'd have thought it was a joke like all the other Antoine-related jokes you've heard over the last year. Instead, I left Portland with the feeling that barring some sort of serious injury we'll see Antoine Walker in the NBA again. Probably this season.

He's got some basketball left, and finally, all the motivation and desperation to bring it out.

Rich Levine's column runs each Monday, Wednesday and Friday on CSNNE.com. Rich can be reached at rlevine@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrlevine33

Celtics' cup has runneth over so far this season

cp-1-spark-celtics-thanksgiving.jpg

Celtics' cup has runneth over so far this season

BOSTON -- The Boston Celtics are no different than the rest of us. They have a lot to be thankful for.
 
There’s the usual good health, family and friends. But they have a few more things to be thankful for, as well.
 
So as you take a brief time-out today from the turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce, here’s a look at five things the Celtics are thankful for this season.


 
KYRIE IRVING
 
The Celtics have had some solid players in recent years, but the addition of Kyrie Irving was a game-changer. He provides Boston with an unmistakable superstar who has a proven track record of success on all levels -- he's won an NBA championship and an Olympic Gold medal, and is also a four-time All-Star. Did I mention he’s just 25 years old?


 
AL HORFORD
 
His numbers will never adequately measure the impact Horford has had on the Celtics. The big plus with Horford was him simply agreeing to be a Celtic. For years this franchise has been built on the success of developing draft picks or trading for talented players. But rarely have they had the financial flexibility or, to be frank, the kind of appeal to free agents to go out and acquire a proven All-Star like Al Horford. His arrival has enhanced an already-established winning culture, one that has become a player on the free agency market ever since.


 
DANNY AINGE
 
Other than Oklahoma City’s Sam Presti, it’s hard to imagine another front office executive having as good an offseason as Ainge. He rolled the dice to go down two spots in last June’s NBA draft, and wound up with arguably the most NBA-ready player (Jayson Tatum) among those selected in last June’s NBA draft. (Remember, the likely rookie-of-the-year Ben Simmons did not play last year after Philadelphia drafted him with the top overall pick in 2016.) The free-agent pickups of Aron Baynes, Daniel Theis and Shane Larkin have all had moments where they carried the team to victory. Even second-round picks like Semi Ojeleye and two-way players like Jabari Bird have contributed to wins this season. Fans may not like some of Ainge’s decisions in the moment but he deserves a lot of credit for the team we see today, one that has played at a level few envisioned they'd reach this quickly.


 
BRAD STEVENS
 
And to think, the Big Three (Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward and Al Horford) Boston was planning to build around this season has played less than five minutes together. Stevens has been pushing all the right buttons, putting guys in unexpected positions to succeed with a cast that’s long on talent and well, well short on experience. Boston’s first win of the season came at Philadelphia, a game in which the Celtics played six different rookies. It’s not unusual for teams to use first-year players frequently, but for a team that was built to contend for a championship? That’s highly unusual. The biggest thing is despite the lack of experience on the floor, Stevens hasn’t allowed them to use that as a reason to fail. Instead, Stevens has had them lean heavily on film study and the wisdom of veterans, as well as empowered them to have a “next-man-up” mindset with one goal regardless of what they are tasked with doing: Get it done. No excuses.


 
ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT
 
Boston has spent most of this season atop the NBA standings, fueled in large part by a 15-game winning streak -- the longest of the Brad Stevens era and the fifth-longest ever by a Celtics team. But within that winning streak, there have been some noticeable areas of concern (i.e., bench scoring) that have made games more challenging. And that's what makes these Celtics so scary to the rest of the league. If they’re beating teams consistently now, how much better will they be when the offense catches up or, at a minimum, gains some ground on what has been an impressive stretch of play defensively? That’s why as good as this first full month of the season has been, there's reason to believe they’ll only get better. The Celtiheircs have seen  share of adversity. They've played without their All-Stars. They have fought back from double-digit deficits to emerge victorious. This is a young squad, but battle-tested already. Because of all that, they have a certain level of confidence that regardless of the situation, regardless of the score, they feel they will find a pathway to success. And that, Celtics Nation, is something to be thankful for.

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE


 

Blakely's takeaways: Moving on without the streak

Blakely's takeaways: Moving on without the streak

The streak is over! The streak is over!

We now return the Boston Celtics to their regularly scheduled pursuit of success without the growing pressure that comes with a historically relevant winning streak.

The 104-98 loss at Miami on Wednesday night brought an end to what had been one of the more unlikely winning streaks we’ve seen in the NBA for quite some time.

Boston reeled off 16 straight wins, many of which were the come-from-a-double-digit-deficit variety. In the end, the Celtics’ winning streak ranks as the fourth-longest in this storied franchise’s history.

“I told you, we’re not as good as the 16-game win streak,” Stevens said following the loss. “But we do have a lot of resolve.”

That resolve will surely be challenged with the Celtics taking Thanksgiving off, only to return and play three games in the next four nights beginning with Orlando on Friday, followed by a road game at Indiana on Saturday and a home date against the Detroit Pistons on Monday.

Here are five takeaways from the Boston Celtics’ 16-game winning streak.

KYRIE FOR MVP?

When the Boston Celtics traded for Kyrie Irving during the offseason, there was a sense that his presence would be a plus in some capacity, at some point. But few envisioned Irving would not only have a relatively seamless fit with the Celtics, but deliver in such a way that would catapult them to the top of the NBA standings and in doing so, establish him as one of the early front-runners for the league’s MVP award. This season, Irving is averaging a team-best 22.5 points and 5.2 assists while shooting 47 percent from the field but most important, the Celtics (16-3) have the best record in the NBA.

WANTED: BENCH SCORER

If you are a fan of good defenders, you probably love the Boston Celtics’ second unit. Terry Rozier and Marcus Smart are both ball-hawking defenders who can make some miserable times for opponents when they are on top of their game. Daniel Theis provides great energy on the glass and defensively. But the second unit needs a jolt offensively. Because as good as they can defend collectively, the Celtics have to have at least one starter on the floor most of the time because the bench doesn’t have an adequate collector of buckets that they can rely on consistently. Marcus Morris looks like an ideal choice for that role, but the left knee soreness that kept him out for eight games seems to be flaring up from time to time. Whether they address this with a trade or possibly with a player bought out, the lack of a second-unit scorer is very much an issue for this team.

BROWN EMERGES AS TWO-WAY TALENT

The plan was for Jaylen Brown to be an elite, shut-down defender this season. He has shown himself to be a good defender this season, but what has really made him stand out is the growth in his game offensively. The second-year wing has scored 20-plus points in three of Boston’s last four games. Doing that along with continuing to play good defense has him looking like one of the NBA’s promising young two-way talents.

TATUM’S GROWTH A SILVER LINING IN HAYWARD INJURY

You never want to see the Boston Celtics or any team for that matter, lose a player for the season let alone one who meant as much as Gordon Hayward to the Celtics. But if there is a silver lining in his ankle injury which is expected to keep him out all season, it is the opportunity it created for Jayson Tatum. The 19-year-old has been arguably the best player from last June’s draft class, playing major minutes with a major role for the team with the best record in the NBA. The opportunity to play around 30 minutes a game would not have been there for Tatum if Hayward didn’t get hurt. The challenge for Tatum going forward is to stay consistent, because now that teams have seen him for almost a quarter of the season, you can expect they will make some adjustments in how they defend him as well as try to attack him when he’s defending.

WE TALKIN’ ABOUT PRACTICE

During Boston’s 16 game winning streak, the Celtics played the last eight games in 16 nights. That’s a game every other night for more than two weeks. In that time, there’s little to no time for practice which has been a factor in Boston not being quite as sharp in the last few games, as they were at the start of the streak. After Thanksgiving, Boston plays three games in four nights with a pair of days off to follow before they return to action. There’s a very good chance that the Celtics will use one of those two days to practice, something this team desperately needs to clean up some of the minor mistakes that were big problems in their loss to the Heat on Wednesday.

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE