Antoine Walker took his game into the paint and gave Boston an early edge over the 76ers
The experts were sure the Celtics were going to make a quick exit in the playoffs, and the reasons were obvious: Power forward Antoine Walker would hoist too many three-pointers; he and three of his fellow starters had no postseason experience; and their first-round opponents were the Eastern Conference champion 76ers, who had gone 10-2 against Boston over the past three seasons.
But Walker had other ideas. Boston took Games 1 and 2 at home because he scored 44 points while putting up only seven threes—one fewer than he attempted per game during the season when he led the league in tries (645) and makes (222). When the 25-year-old Walker wasn't setting up in the low post, he was up-faking from the perimeter and driving past Derrick Coleman. Only when the Celtics trailed by as many as 16 points on Sunday in Philly did Walker unleash his long-range arsenal, rallying the Celtics by hitting all seven of his first-half threes in a 108-103 loss. Said Celtics coach Jim O'Brien, "He bailed us out, because we were getting hammered."
Many in Boston wondered if Walker's decision to begin the series in the paint had been prompted by Larry Bird, who criticized him for shooting a career-low 39.4% this year, including 34.4% from beyond the arc. "He belongs underneath the basket," Bird told The Boston Globe three days before Game 1. "He should be one of the top eight players in the league, but he's fallen in love with the outside shot." The truth is that Walker was already thinking about an adjustment last month, saying that Boston intended to go inside more often once the postseason began.
The 6'9" Walker was one of only four NBA players to average at least 20 points, seven rebounds and five assists this season. Still, Celtics coach Jim O'Brien says that Walker's detractors should remember that he's far from a finished product. This season Walker cut his turnovers from 3.7 per game to 3.1 while handing out almost as many assists (5.0) as point guard Kenny Anderson (5.3). "I believe Antoine has an MVP-caliber season ahead of him," O'Brien says. "In the future he will have a three-to-one assist-to-turnover ratio, he'll shoot 40% from the three-point line, and his field goal percentage will be over 45."
Yet Walker seems destined to remain second in the hearts of Bostonians, who were chanting "MVP" last Thursday as Paul Pierce conjured up memories of Bird by hitting his last three shots to seal a 93-85 win in Game 2. Afterward Pierce—who was just 3 for 16 from the field before the final five minutes—tried to shift the praise to his fellow co-captain. It was Walker, he noted, who had carried the team with 22 points and seven rebounds during the first three quarters, including a spectacular basket after crossing over to avoid a steal by Allen Iverson.
After shooting his team back into Game 3, Walker admitted to a lapse in judgment when he passed up an open trey in the final minute to feed Pierce, who was upset he didn't get the ball more down the stretch. "All of us made key mistakes," said Walker. At least he was passing up a long-range shot for a closer one.
Mike Bibby's Debut
Mastering the Playoff Tempo
After the third quarter of a piano-wire-tight Game 3 between the Kings and the Jazz last Saturday, forward Chris Webber bellowed at his point guard, "It's time to play Kings basketball." Mike Bibby nodded. But over the next 12 minutes Bibby didn't orchestrate Sacramento's fast-paced, open-court attack. He went one better, making a series of crucial plays in the waning moments and directing an efficient half-court offense, which is the gold standard during the playoffs.
After the Jazz took a late two-point lead, Bibby ducked his man, John Stockton, and scored on a backdoor layup. Barely a minute later he drew a blocking foul on Stockton and hit two free throws to give the Kings the lead. On the ensuing Utah possession Bibby outraced the other nine players on the floor to snare a loose ball. His final line in the Kings' 90-87 win, to that point the team's biggest game of the season: a game-high 26 points, five assists and five rebounds. With Bibby hitting a key jumper, the Kings closed out a surprisingly competitive series on Monday, beating the Jazz 91-86. "There's no question that playoff basketball is more deliberate, less up and down," he says. "That's an adjustment I had to make."