Low Profile

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."

In his postseason debut the 23-year-old Bibby had to cope with
the nonpareil Stockton and his pick-and-roll partner, Karl
Malone. A half-step quicker than Stockton, Bibby induced him
into early foul trouble, challenged his jump shot and failed to
bite on Stockton's assorted fakes, feigns and gimmicks. Bibby's
success further validated his acquisition last summer from the
Grizzlies in exchange for the mercurial Jason Williams. "Our
whole demeanor is different," Webber said after Game 3. "Setting
the pick-and-roll with Mike up top, maybe he and I can work
together and emulate those two guys in the other locker room for
many years." --L. Jon Wertheim

Cleveland's Ricky Davis
Pedal to the Metal--Finally

Through most of this season Ricky Davis appeared to be sliding
into obscurity: He was an oft-injured 6'7" swingman with a
career scoring average of 4.6 points, playing for his third team
in four years. Then over the final 13 games the 22-year-old
Davis went on a scoring binge for the Cavaliers, pouring in 21.6
points per game, including a career-high 35 against the Lakers.

Cleveland needs a slashing, midrange scorer like Davis to mesh
with point guard Andre Miller and center Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who
played 62 games without reinjuring his feet. The Cavs are
optimistic about re-signing Davis, who becomes a restricted free
agent this summer, but agent Dan Fegan intends to test the
market. "If Ricky puts together a full season that's anything
like his last month, then he's in Andre Miller's category," says
Fegan, knowing that Miller might be in line for a maximum
extension this summer.

Wizards guard Courtney Alexander put on a similar charge last
year, averaging 22.4 points in April to be named Rookie of the
Month, only to struggle this season. But Davis believes he will
continue to improve after finally recovering from right-foot
fractures he suffered in November 2000 and last June. "When I
felt no pain during the middle of the season, I stopped thinking
about it and started playing," Davis says. "I hope the Cavaliers
sign me--that's my first option."

Play of the Week
Time Bandit

NCAA referees are permitted to review instant replays to see if
last-second shots beat the clock. Why isn't the same aid
extended to their NBA counterparts? The issue has been raised
several times this season but never more loudly than last
Saturday, when Bernie Fryer waved off Baron Davis's apparent
game-winning three-pointer in Orlando. The Hornets had inbounded
to Davis with seven tenths of a second remaining, and replays
showed that he got the shot up before time expired. "He had to
cock to get a three-pointer up to get muscle behind it," Fryer
said. "You can't do that in seven tenths." Yet a day earlier,
the Pacers' Reggie Miller had been able to take--and miss--a
similar shot against the Nets with eight tenths remaining.

Fortunately for the NBA, Davis shrugged off the call and went on
to lead Charlotte to a 110-100 victory in overtime and a 2-1
advantage in the series. After the game, commissioner David
Stern said the league would look into letting officials use
replay in evaluating buzzer beaters.

COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER O'Brien says Walker has a well-rounded game that could produce an MVP season in the near future. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Davis is up for a big raise after his scoring surge.

scout's Take
On the Spurs, who led their first-round series with the Sonics
2-1 at week's end:

"They're going to have trouble in the playoffs whether David
Robinson's back improves or not. No offense to Malik Rose, but
it's hard to win when he's your second-best player. Otherwise
they've got four fossils [Robinson, Steve Smith, Terry Porter
and Danny Ferry], a 19-year-old French point guard [Tony Parker]
and a defensive specialist [Bruce Bowen]. When Tim Duncan has a
poor shooting night, who carries the offense? Even if Robinson
comes back, it's not the Twin Towers anymore: It's one tower
with a bunch of little towers."