By Anthony McClean, Editor In Chief Emeritus NEW HAVEN (BASN) —...
CelticNation Gave ‘Toine the Warmest Welcome Back
BOSTON, MA—The Celtics’ prodigal son, Antoine Walker, made his home debut against Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday, and 18,624 live witnesses gave him a welcome that made even the 6’8” power forward a little emotional. “Very special,” is the way Antoine described his return to the FleetCenter. “Even better than when I came back from Dallas.”
“You get emotional,” ‘Toine continued. “People give you a standing ovation, I don’t care who you are. It’s very emotional. The fans have been so great here. The people of Boston are great to me. Hopefully, I can make them proud. I want to help this team win. I could never imagine coming back and it being like this. Hopefully, we can get it going and they can come support us night in night out.”
While CelticNation gave the former Celtic captain an ovation to remember, they jeered Kobe Bryant when his name was announced by the PA. The taunting continued throughout the game, including early in the first quarter when Kobe was at the free throw line shooting two foul shots. While approaching the charity stripe, the crowd began to chant, “No means no! No means no!”
Unaffected, Bryant connected on 6-of-8 field goals en route to 17 first quarter points (1-for-2 from beyond the arc, perfect four from the line), including a sweet baseline reverse. However, Paul Pierce was just as effective in the opening frame. It seemed like an old fashion shoot-out as The Truth and Showbe traded baskets throughout the first quarter. When Kobe drove on Ricky Davis (19-21), Pierce came back and nailed a 16-footer (21-23). When Bryant converted three the hard way: hitting a field goal, getting fouled, and making the free throw (21-26), Pierce did one better and got four the hard way: hitting a three-pointer from beyond the top of the key, getting fouled by former Celtic Jermaine Jones, and converting the free throw (27-27).
Los Angeles did score 30 points in the opening quarter, but the Celtics were able to keep pace and were only down by three points by the time the buzzer sounded to mark the end of the first quarter (27-30). Pierce led the Celtics in the first by scoring 13 points. The Truth was 5-for-6 from the field and didn’t miss either one of his three point attempts, nor did he miss his only free throw of the quarter.
The second quarter was Ricky Davis’ turn to shine. “They were helping off Ricky, which we were really ecstatic about,” said Celtics coach Doc Rivers after the game. Ricky was assigned the difficult task of trying to keep up with Kobe. But it was Kobe and the rest of the Lakers who found out how difficult it can be to stop Davis. Ricky D dropped 11 points in the second quarter (4-for-7 from the field, 3-for-4 from the line), but his most memorable field goal came in the closing seconds of the first half. After grabbing a rebound and dribbling the length of the court, Pierce threw the ball toward the rim and Ricky D appeared from nowhere already in mid-flight, grabbed the ball with two hands, and slammed it reverse style with 2.2 seconds remaining in the half, sending CelticNation into an elated frenzy.
By the end of the first half, Boston had a four-point lead (56-51). Pierce had 16 by halftime and Ricky D had 19. On the flip side, Bryant shot only 20% from the field in the second quarter (1-for-5 from the field, no-for-1 from beyond the arc).
The Celts extended the lead to eight points by the end of the third quarter, but the Lakers were able to stage a comeback behind the strong play of another former Celtic, Chucky Atkins, who scored 17 points in the second half. Kobe Bryant had a chance to tie the game and send it into overtime but while being closely guarded by Paul Pierce, his three-point shot clanked off the rim as time expired. Afterwards, it was learned that Kobe’s injured ankle was giving him trouble again. “When your ankle is stiff, it’s tough to get the lift that you really want,” explained Kobe in the locker room after the game. “I just wish I had put a little more arc on it. Then it would have fell for me.”
“I’m not really guarding him thinking his ankle is hurting,” the Truth admitted after the game. “I’m just worried that this guy has made so many clutch shots in the past, I don’t want his next one to be on me. I just tried to sit on his right hand, make it tough on him, pushed him all the way from the line, and he just missed the shot.”
Paul Pierce and Ricky Davis led the Celtics with 29 points. Pierce went 10-for-18 from the field, made all three of his three-point attempts, and 6-for-7 from the charity stripe. During the game, he borrowed a move that Showbe did on Ricky D earlier in the game. Kobe was closely defending Pierce and swiping at the ball as Pierce was moving it from side to side at knee level in an attempt to free up his shooting hand. When Kobe reached his hands toward the ball again, Pierce went up for the shot while his hands were underneath Kobe’s, forcing Kobe’s hands to get entangled with Pierce’s and forcing the ref to call the foul on Kobe. “I told him I was going to patent it,” joked Kobe. “I own the rights to that move. I’m going to charge him for every time he uses my move.” Pierce also grabbed nine rebounds, had seven assists, and a block.
Ricky D connected on 13 of his 23 field goal attempts. He missed his lone three-point attempt and was 3-for-6 from the charity stripe. “Ricky scored 29 points, but to me, Ricky (pause) his defense was better than his offense,” praised Coach Rivers. “The offense everyone talks about, but Ricky harassed (Kobe), and Ricky denied him.”
“Ricky Davis, to me, is an all-star too. To ask him to guard Kobe and then to go back and get 30 (actually 29). A lot of guys can’t do that,” added Antoine Walker.
Antoine Walker added 16 points but was only 6-for-17 from the field, and no-for-2 from beyond the arc. In fact, he missed one three-pointer so bad (an airball) that it caused Danny Ainge, who was sitting courtside right next to former Celtic player and coach ML Carr, to put his head in his hands. After the game, Walker explained that while taking the shot, he saw Paul Pierce out of the corner of his eye. The distraction caused him to miss the shot badly.
“The great thing about this team that I love is that I don’t necessarily have to score 25 points for us to win,” said ‘Toine in the post game interview. “I just got to play basketball every night. Do whatever it takes to help the team win. Tonight I tried to rebound the ball as much as possible.” Walker also led the Cs with 13 rebounds (seven offensive rebounds), a steal, and FOUR BLOCK SHOTS (something CelticNation never saw during his last tenure with the Cs).
“I love it when he pushes it up,” said Coach Rivers when referring to ‘Toine’s game. “Our guys got to get used to running when he gets it. We showed them on film there were four or five rebounds when Antoine got it and pushed it, our guys were running this way (toward Antoine) to try to come get the ball, and he was running by them. Once we get used to “when he gets the rebound, they run out and spread the floor”, we’re going to have a great break. It’s just different for our guys when they see a four – Ricky, Paul, Delonte – when they are used to running towards the ball to push it up themselves, you don’t have to do that with Antoine. We just got to get used to it.”
Walker was also able to get his old number 8 back from Celtic rookie Al Jefferson, which means that he can be referred to as “Employee Number 8” again. “I saw Chris (Webber) at the Philly game and I just called (the League office) and made a big deal about it,” he explained. “You know, ‘How did he get his number back but I didn’t.’ And then I conned Al Jefferson. I just called him to my room and tried to con him out of it.” When asked how he tried to con him, Walker laughingly replied, “Undisclosed information.”
As of Friday (before tipoff against Charlotte), Boston was 3-0 since the return of Antoine Walker. Coach Rivers explained the three-game winning streak by saying: “The reason why I think it’s working now, honestly, is because of Antoine’s basketball IQ. He has a high basketball IQ. And he figures things out pretty well himself. So now our other guys have to. I think our young guys they struggle a little. They’ve never seen Antoine.”
Ex-Celtic Chucky Atkins led the Lakers with 29 points (10-for-21 from the field, 2-for-6 from the deep end and 7-for-8 from the free throw line).
“I thought in the fourth quarter, Ricky denied (Kobe) so much that they had to go somewhere else, and Chucky (Atkins) answered the bell for them,” said Doc. “When he shot the left-hand shot, he looked right at our bench. I said, ‘I know I ain’t taught you that, so I don’t know where the hell you got that from.’ I only thought he went right. So that tells you how bad of a coach I am. I coached him three years and he never did that.”
“Chucky had a huge game. He’s been doing that all year,” said Kobe. “He’s been consistent. He’s been shooting and with his clutch play, he just had another big game. Like I said, he’s been doing it all year. No matter who we play, he really steps up and gets the job done and tonight was no different for him.”
Kobe added 26 points. After going 6-for-8 in the first quarter, Kobe was 3-for-16 for the rest of the game. “It was a hard fought game,” said Bryant. “Obviously, they had a lot of momentum with Antoine coming back. I thought the energy in the building was more than a typical regular season basketball game. They made big plays down the stretch when they needed to.”
When asked about his ankle, Kobe replied: “It’s OK. It gets a little sore. I sit down on the bench and it gets tight. We’re just going to continue our treatment and figure out a way to keep it loose.”
*On Friday, the Celtics announced that they have re-signed veteran point guard and free agent Gary Payton, a move that solidifies the backcourt as the Celtics move toward the end of the regular season and jockey for the Atlantic Division crown and the best spot in the first round of the playoffs. “I told the young guys, ‘The way it was tonight, it’s ten times better than that come April when the playoffs start,’ said ‘Toine. “And I just told them ‘Let’s win this division. When you get in the playoffs, you’re going to see real Boston fans.’”
“The crowd was great. It was just great energy in the building,” added Coach Rivers. “I remember that in the other building (the Boston Garden) … It was really, really, nice to see. And now it is their job, in my opinion, to earn by winning. Tonight was because Antoine returned and people wanted to see him. Now it’s up to us to keep them by winning. And that’s all on us.”
And winning should be easier now that Antoine Walker and now Gary Payton have returned to the Gang Green.