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Stepping Forward Buddies Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker are lifting Boston and fueling a debate: Which of the young frontliners is better?

Nov. 26, 2001
Nov. 26, 2001

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Nov. 26, 2001

Stepping Forward Buddies Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker are lifting Boston and fueling a debate: Which of the young frontliners is better?

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.

This is an article from the Nov. 26, 2001 issue Original Layout

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
Inglewood 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."

A Celtics official winces as these revelations are offered, but
honesty is one of Pierce's many endearing qualities. Walker might
be more commonly considered outgoing because of his proclivity to
lip-flap at opponents and referees, but Pierce is hardly his
silent partner. On two occasions this season Pierce has leaped
onto the courtside press table and pumped his fist to exhort the
FleetCenter crowd. "What Paul brings is an exuberance for the
game," says O'Brien. "When your best players show that they love
to be in the gym, it's contagious."

Away from the court Pierce and Walker are equally involved in the
community. Last week Pierce strolled into an elementary school
classroom in suburban Boston for a program promoting reading
awareness and completely took over. "Desk check!" he yelled, as
kids began scrambling to tidy up. "Desk police are here!" After
practice one day last week he interrupted an interview and
ordered Austin Carroll, the 11-year-old son of Celtics assistant
John Carroll, to do a run-the-floor suicide drill in 35 seconds.
Pierce had bystanders up and screaming for Austin, who completed
the course in 34. There's an easy affability, a normalness about
Pierce.

There's toughness, too. A week before the opening of last
season's training camp he was knifed more than a dozen times by
three men who set upon him in a Boston nightclub, and he
underwent surgery to repair a lung. (Doctors theorized that
Pierce's leather jacket saved his life; the assailants, who
attacked him because he had talked to one of their sisters, have
pleaded not guilty to charges of armed assault with intent to
murder.) He was in the preseason lineup three weeks after the
attack, and though it was an unpleasant subject, Pierce never
dodged it. "He actually put us at ease," says Steve Bulpett, who
covers the team for the Boston Herald.

While Pierce has avoided trouble of his own making off the court,
on the court and in the locker room it's a different story. As a
senior at Inglewood he got into fistfights with six of his 11
teammates because he felt they weren't playing hard enough, and
in Boston he is still the combustible drill sergeant. If, say,
center Vitaly Potapenko drops a pass, which has been known to
happen, Walker will take him aside and encourage him. Pierce's
approach? "I'll get in his face and scream, 'Vitaly! Catch! The!
Ball!'" Pierce says. "I think too much of my leadership is done
the bad way."

Indeed, Pierce plays with a flinty-eyed, single-minded toughness
that puts him at the top of the Celtics' food chain, a half step
higher than Walker. Only reluctantly and always off the
record--lest the binary system that Boston has set up be
disturbed--some in the organization will confirm that judgment.
They will also admit that Walker spends too much time on the
perimeter launching threes (he took an astounding 603 last
season, 86 more than the league's next most prolific bomber, Tim
Hardaway) and that he carries the power-point thing a little too
far, albeit with the blessing of his coach. Among the Celtics'
faithful Pierce is clearly the favorite for his old-school
toughness, while a rash of ill-advised threes by Walker still
elicits a few boos in the FleetCenter. "Our fans are used to
success, and I understand that," says Walker. "Anyway, whatever
noise there might be, I'm so zoned in on the game that I don't
hear it."

Predictably, Pierce rushes to Walker's defense, holding Pitino,
who resigned last January as coach and president, responsible for
any negative sentiments about Walker. "He made Antoine the
whipping boy for everything that went wrong," says Pierce. "The
idea that Antoine was out of shape or wasn't a team player came
from Pitino. It's not fair, and I hope our fans realize that
eventually."

There is no doubt that the team believes in Pierce and Walker.
"Paul and 'Toine like each other and trust each other," says
backup point guard Milt Palacio, "and that's why this two-leader
thing works. We feed off it." If there is to be any post in the
Celtics' season, Pierce and Walker must continue to work in
harmony, for their joint contributions are--as the forwards
themselves would say--crucial.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY PETER GREGOIRE Heartiest complements Pierce (left) and Walker, teammates for three seasons, mesh easily on and off the court.COLOR PHOTO: FERNANDO MEDINA/NBA ENTERTAINMENT Uphill climb Pierce's forte is scoring, but as Boston coaches are quick to point out, he is not shy about mixing it up under the basket.COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Overview At 6'9", Walker frequently has advantageous passing angles, which he has used to assist Pierce more than any other Celtic.
Pierce has become an expert at finding angles, leaning in,
taking advantage of any space he gets.
A rash of ill-advised threes by Walker still elicits a few boos
from the Boston faithful at the FleetCenter.