Antoine Walker's not a Maine man

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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' Ceiling-to-Floor profiles: An award-winning summer for Rozier?

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Celtics' Ceiling-to-Floor profiles: An award-winning summer for Rozier?

Every weekday until Sept. 7, we'll take a look at each player at the Celtics roster: Their strengths and their weaknesses, their ceiling and their floor. We continue today with Terry Rozier. For a look at the other profiles, click here.

BOSTON -- Terry Rozier has every reason to feel good about himself after this year's Summer League, where he was clearly the Boston Celtics’ best player. 
 
But what does Summer League success really mean in the grand scheme of things?
 
This isn’t the Olympics, where a good couple of weeks in the summer can lead to sudden endorsement opportunities. And a bad summer, on or off the court, won’t necessarily result in your personal stock taking a Ryan Lochte-like dip, either.
 
For Rozier, the summer has been a continuation of his emergence during the playoffs last season against the Atlanta Hawks, when his numbers were significantly better across the board in comparison to what he did during the regular season.
 
And while his role at this point remains uncertain, there’s a growing sense that what we saw in the summer was more than just Rozier making the most of his opportunity to play. 
 
It was the 6-foot-2 guard playing with the kind of confidence and overall swagger that Boston hopes to see more of in this upcoming season.  
  
The Ceiling for Rozier: Most Improved Player, Sixth Man candidate
 
Rozier never wanted to see teammate Avery Bradley suffer a hamstring injury in Game 1 of Boston’s first-round series with Atlanta last season. But he knows if not for that injury, he wouldn't have played as much as he did, nor would he be viewed as someone who could seriously compete for minutes this season. 
 
That injury afforded Rozier playing time he had not seen in the 39 regular-season games he appeared in, when he averaged 8.0 minutes per contest.
 
In the playoffs, Rozier saw his playing time increase to 19.8 minutes per game, which naturally led to a rise in all of his statistics. 
 
It did more than help the Celtics compete with the Hawks. It provided a huge confidence boost for Rozier this past summer and will do the same going into training camp, where he believes he will be better-equipped to compete for playing time. 
 
Rozier already plays above-average defense for the Celtics. The big question mark for him has been whether he can knock down shots consistently. It certainly didn’t look that way during the regular season, when he shot 22.2 percent on 3s and just 27.4 percent from the field. 
 
Although the sample size is much smaller, he was able to shoot 39.1 percent from the field and 36.4 percent on 3s in the five playoff games he appeared in this past spring. 
 
So both Rozier and the Celtics feel good about the fact that his game in key areas such as shooting and assists are trending in the right direction. 
 
And if that continues he'll solidify a spot high atop the second unit, which could translate into him having a shot at garnering some Most Improved Player recognition.
 
The Floor for Rozier: Active roster
 
While his minutes may not improve significantly from a year ago, Rozier will likely enter training camp with a spot in Boston’s regular playing rotation.
 
On most nights the Celtics are likely to play at least four guards: Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart and Rozier. 
 
Look for him to get most of the minutes left behind by Evan Turner, who was signed by Portland to a four-year, $70 million deal this summer. 
 
Of course, Rozier’s minutes will be impacted in some way by how those ahead of him perform. But Rozier can’t consume himself with such thoughts. 
 
He has to force the Celtics’ coaches to keep him on the floor, And the only way to do that is to play well and contribute to the team’s success in a meaningful way. 
 
While his shooting has improved, Rozier is at his best when he lets his defense dictate his play offensively. 
 
In the playoffs last season, Rozier averaged 1.2 fast-break points per game, which was fifth on the team. 
 
Just to put that in perspective, Rozier averaged 19.8 minutes in the postseason. The four players ahead of him (Bradley, Thomas, Turner and Smart) each averaged more than 32 minutes of court time per night.
 
While it’s too soon to tell where Rozier fits into the rotation this season, his play this summer and overall body of work dating back to the playoffs last season makes it difficult to envision him not being on the active roster for most, if not all, of this season.

A make-or-break season ahead for Kelly Olynyk?

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A make-or-break season ahead for Kelly Olynyk?

Every weekday until Sept. 7, we'll take a look at each player at the Celtics roster: Their strengths and their weaknesses, their ceiling and their floor. We continue today with Kelly Olynyk. For a look at the other profiles, click here.

BOSTON – The Celtics went into the playoffs last season well short of being at full strength. No player exemplified this more than Kelly Olynyk, a non-factor in postseason due to a right shoulder injury that required surgery in May.

He comes into this season facing a much stiffer route to playing time than his previous four seasons. While Jared Sullinger (Toronto) is gone, Boston brings in four-time All-Star Al Horford, in addition to returners Amir Johnson, Tyler Zeller and second-year big man Jordan Mickey, who is in line for a more expanded role this season.

Throw in the fact that Olynyk and the Celtics can reach terms on an extension before the start of the season (an unlikely occurrence because frankly it’s to both Boston and Olynyk’s benefit for him to be a restricted free agent next summer), and it’s clear just how important this season is to all involved.

Here’s a look at Olynyk’s ceiling as well as the floor for his game heading into this season.

The ceiling for Olynyk: Starter, Most Improved Player candidate

Kelly Olynyk has proven himself to be a much better contributor coming off the bench as opposed to starting. But no one will be shocked if Olynyk can play his way into a spot with the first group.  A 7-footer with legit 3-point range, Olynyk has shown flashes throughout his career of being a major problem for opponents because of his stretch-big skills.

And when teams have been a bit too eager in closing out or failed to box him out on a rebound, Olynyk has shown us all that “the bounce is real.”

He already ranks among the best big-man shooters all-time and needs just one made 3-pointer to join Dirk Nowitzki (1,701) and Andrea Bargnani (627) as the only 7-footers in league history with 500 or more made 3s.

In addition to making lots of 3s, Olynyk does it at a fairly efficient rate which can be seen in him shooting 40.5 percent on 3s last season which was tops among all NBA centers and made him one of just 20 players in the NBA to shoot at least 40 percent on 3s.

Although Olynyk’s defense has been considered among his biggest weaknesses, his defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions on the floor) of 97.7 was tops among Celtics players who logged at least 20 minutes per game last season.

If he can build off that, as well as continue to make teams pay with his long-range shooting, Olynyk could be one of the breakout performers this season for the Celtics and find himself on the short list of the NBA’s most improved players.

The bigger issue with Olynyk centers around his struggles holding position in the post as a rebounder. Because he’s a stretch big, you know he’s not going to haul in a ton of boards for you.

But he has to be better than last season when he grabbed 4.1 rebounds, which continued what has been a career regression in this area.

After averaging 5.2 boards as a rookie, he slipped to 4.7 in his second season and averaged a career-low 4.1 last season.

The floor for Olynyk: Active roster

Talk to anyone within the Celtics organization and they will not hesitate to point out the skillset that Olynyk has and how important he could potentially be for this team going forward.

Still, that’s part of the problem.

Olynyk has shown promise to be more than just a player in the rotation. He has the kind of skills that if he were to deliver them with more consistency, he would immediately become one of the team’s standout performers which would make Boston a much, much tougher team to defend.

But his game has been one marred by injuries and inconsistent play which, as you might expect, go hand-in-hand.

Even with what has been an uneven career, Olynyk has still managed to be a double-digit scorer in each of the past two seasons.

And his net rating (offensive rating minus defensive rating) of +5.2 is tops among players logging 20 or more minutes, too.

But even if he doesn’t elevate his game defensively or become a more reliable rebounder for Boston, Olynyk won’t be suiting up in street clothes as a healthy scratch anytime soon.

Olynyk has too much talent, and when you look at this Celtics roster, he fits a clear and well-defined need.

Pace and space remain keys to what Brad Stevens is trying to do with the Celtics and Olynyk’s strengths are an ideal addition.

But as we have seen with Stevens in the past, he’s not afraid to take a player out of the starting lineup or regular rotation, and bench them from time to time.

Just as it won’t surprise anyone to see Olynyk play a more prominent role potentially as a starter, the same is true if he struggles and finds himself racking up a few DNP-CDs (did not play- coaches decision) either.

But Olynyk has too much talent to fall too far off the Celtics’ radar, especially when you look at this roster and realize there’s no other player quite like him in terms of combining size, skill and perimeter shooting.

 

 

 

 

 

     

Could the '80s Celtics have won eight championships?

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Could the '80s Celtics have won eight championships?

In this episode, we sit-down with one of the best basketball writers in the country, Jackie MacMullan. Jackie covered the Celtics for the Boston Globe for several years, and collaborated with Larry Bird on his auto-biography. 

Jim Aberdale, producer of CSN’s documentary on the ‘86 Celtics, talks with MacMullan about the bitter rivalry between the Celtics and Lakers during the 80’s, how the tragedies the Celtics faced following the ‘86 title were difficult to believe, and covering the Golden Age of the NBA.