For a franchise once bound by tradition, the Boston Celtics sure are forward-thinking—as in Paul Pierce, a small forward in the classic sense, and Antoine Walker, a power forward in the most unorthodox sense. So pervasive is the idea that the team is a machine co-operated by two frontcourt engineers that a curious kind of double-speak has become the native tongue of the Celtics' organization. Mention to one of the coaches Pierce's ability to slash to the basket, and he will remind you of 'Toine's versatility. Bring up Walker's rebounding, and expect to hear that Pierce is getting better in that department. Hint that Pierce's shot selection is wiser than that of the bomb-heaving Walker, and you'll get word that coach Jim O'Brien loves the three. Praise Walker's playmaking ability, and you'll be told that Pierce is a capable passer too.
The forwards themselves—enthusiastic practitioners of the two-man game on the floor, good buddies off it—are plugged in to the same circuit. As he glanced at the stat sheet after a 101-93 victory over the Indiana Pacers on Nov. 14, Pierce noticed that Walker had fallen one assist short of a triple double. "Damn," he said. "Knowing me, I probably missed an easy bucket, and it cost him." When it is suggested to Walker that he is the real leader of the team, he's quick to deny it. "Paul and I are both leaders," he says. Yes, like most others in the organization, Pierce and Walker have double vision.
With good reason. At week's end the two had combined for 51.8 points per game, second only to the 57.7 points scored by the Los Angeles Lakers' duo of Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal. Pierce's average of 28.4 put him second in the league, behind Shaq, and as usual Walker was filling up a box score as easily as Charles Barkley fills up a swivel chair: 23.4 points, 11.6 rebounds and 5.6 assists per game. This yin-and-yang thang has helped Boston go 5-3 through Sunday, a start that suggests a spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs could be in the offing. That sounds like a feeble goal for such a proud franchise, but the Celtics haven't been seen in the postseason since May 5, 1995, which happens to be when the final game was played at Boston Garden.
Still, Boston desperately needs to develop a reliable third scoring option, get better rebounding from its big people and use the three-point shot more judiciously. The emergence of 6'7" shooting guard Joe Johnson, a rookie from Arkansas who was averaging 12.5 points at week's end, may take care of the first shortcoming, but the other two remain serious weaknesses. In a 112-103 loss at Atlanta last Saturday, for example, the Celtics were outrebounded 46-31 and launched 37 threes. The long ball helped them rally in the third period, but seven misses from beyond the arc doomed them in the fourth.
Pierce and Walker, court-savvy enough to know that a third option is a necessity, have enthusiastically accepted Johnson's contributions. Even more admirable, though, is the way they've accommodated each other. If there is jealousy about comparative stats or preoccupation about who is the real team leader, neither has surfaced. They are "12-month-a-year players," as Boston general manager Chris Wallace puts it, united by their obsession with roundball. They jabber endlessly about the fortunes of their respective alma maters ( Kansas for the 24-year-old Pierce, Kentucky for the 25-year-old Walker) and badger Wallace with their opinions of college players. They also demonstrate the easy camaraderie of kindred souls. "I have an idea," said Pierce during a photo shoot last week. "Take a shot of Antoine tying my shoelaces."
They have their own pet expressions, a principal one being "crucial," which they've extended beyond its normal definition to mean great, exquisite, the bomb. To Pierce, for example, Jason Kidd's point guard play is "crucial." Which raises the question, Who is the truly crucial forward on these Celtics? Consider this a vote for Pierce.
Many NBA observers concluded after the 1998 draft that Boston had stolen Pierce at No. 10—that same feeling is now being expressed about Johnson—but there were questions about how well Pierce would fit in with two offensive-minded forwards, Walker and another Kentucky product, Ron Mercer. The answer? Not very well. "With Antoine, Ron and [point guard] Kenny Anderson," says Pierce, "let's just say there weren't a lot of touches left." When the Celtics dealt Mercer to the Denver Nuggets before the 1999-2000 season, Pierce and Walker instantly became a dynamic duo, albeit one without much of a supporting cast. Deployed in an unusual power-point position, first by Rick Pitino and now by O'Brien, Walker, through whom the offense flows as water through a tap, willingly gives it up to Pierce. Of Pierce's 78 field goals at week's end, 20 had come on passes from Walker and only 18 from the starting guards, Anderson and Johnson.
The forwards constantly improvise during the game, making eye contact to create give-and-goes and pick-and-rolls. Pierce thinks that Walker's height (he's 6'9") allows him to see the court more clearly than point guards and to make entry passes at better angles. Before a practice last week Pierce provided an example on a play Boston calls "thumb up" in its early offense. He took a position on the wing and made a pretend pass to the top, then cut into the lane to post up. "The defense fronts me, so the pass back to me has to be over my shoulder, right at the side of the backboard," says Pierce. "Antoine's the only one who makes that pass every time."
When the 6'6" Pierce gets the ball—from whomever he gets it—he will likely give a clinic on small-forward play. He is a rarity, being a Los Angeles playground zealot (he graduated from Ingle-wood High) who adheres to fundamental principles, an athletic player, to be sure, but not in the Julius Erving skywalking tradition. (He gives himself a seven on the athleticism scale.) Pierce has become an expert at finding angles, knifing through small cavities in the defense, leaning in, taking advantage of any space he gets on a defender, doing "interesting things with the ball rather than spectacular things," as O'Brien puts it. In searching for Pierce prototypes, Boston assistant Lester Conner goes retro. "Paul is sort of Kiki Vandeweghe-ish or Alex English-ish," says Conner. "He puts up points so quickly and efficiently that you think he's having an average game, and you look up and he's scored 30."
Pierce is also among the league's best at getting to the foul line, owing to maneuvers both textbook (initiating contact with help defenders, deliberately scooping a shot from under a defender's arm) and not in the book at all. "I get in there and yell, Oohh! like I've been mugged real bad," says Pierce. "You can actually get calls by yelling, And one! as you release."