Walker's value registers with a voter
One of these days, the packet from the NBA will arrive along with requests for votes for most of the major awards. There will be a Most Valuable Player vote, with five choices. As of right now, can Antoine Walker be one of them?
No, he's not, and won't be, in the category of Shaq (my favorite) or Steve Nash or Tim Duncan. If they aren't the top three finishers, then something's amiss. But the ballot asks you to submit five names. And after those three, who's still out there?
LeBron James? Maybe. But the Cavaliers are a mess right now. Dirk Nowitzki? Maybe. Dwyane Wade? Think he'd be where he is without Shaq? Why not Walker?
Has anyone other than the aforementioned trio of Shaq, Nash, and Duncan made more of an impact on a decent team than Walker? Since the day he was acquired from the Hawks, the Celtics have done a 180. It is not a coincidence. The Celtics are now a legitimate No. 3 team in the East -- and maybe even a top 10 in the entire league. They will have home-court advantage in the first round. They might even -- dare we say it? -- give the Pistons all they can handle in the second round.
There's one prime reason for this turnaround: Employee No. 8.
"Antoine is huge," said Doc Rivers after yesterday's short practice. "He is one of the reasons we're playing better basketball. There's no doubt about it. [The trade] makes us deeper, gives us another veteran. It does a lot of things for us."
How does 11-1 with Walker in the lineup sound? If the Celtics win tonight in New York, they'll be on their best run since they closed the 1991-92 season with 15 wins in 16 games. If they win tonight, they'll have won six straight on the road. That has not happened since 1984. If they win tonight, it will be their eighth straight win, the longest since a nine-gamer 12 years ago!
Walker already has won more games in 3 1/2 weeks with the Celtics than he did in 3 1/2 months with the Hawks. The Celtics had 27 wins in 55 games (3 1/2 months) without Walker. In the ensuing 3 1/2 weeks, they won 11 times in 12 games. So Walker already has been around for nearly 30 percent of the team's victories.
Rivers thinks the Celtics started to come around before the Walker trade. He must have conveniently blocked out those depressing losses to the Lakers and Nuggets, the latter a blowout for which the word "uninspired" comes to mind to describe the Celtics' play. Think of where that team was that night as they left the floor of the Pepsi Center (Rivers, you may recall, left early, courtesy of an ejection).
They were 27-28. They were in a dogfight for first place in a division so pitiful it could have provided punch lines for Leno and Letterman. (Maybe it did; I don't stay up that late.) They were where they were despite no injuries of any significance. There was no buzz whatsoever. There was no one watching, at home or on television.
Walker changed everything.
"I think Antoine added to it, there's no doubt about it," Rivers said. "The optimism he brings when he comes helped our team. We're winning games."
They're also winning because of the way Walker is playing. If he's not going to win the MVP, he should at least take home the MVDR Award: The Mies Van Der Rohe Award, to the player for whom the phrase "less is more" applies.
Walker is doing less this time around. But his impact is greater than it was when he was here before. As he put it yesterday, "I just come in with the mentality of playing. There are so many little things that I don't have to worry about that I did my first time around. I don't have to bring the ball up. Things like that. I'll sit six or seven minutes in a quarter. I never did that before. That's a luxury. It's great."
Part of the reason, of course, is that Danny Ainge has supplied the Celtics with a better, deeper team for Antoine Redux. But most of it is because Walker is finally playing the way we all thought he should be playing -- down low, instead of jacking up treys. That is where Rivers wants him. That is where he'll be.
I've always thought that Walker's best game as a Celtic -- and he had a lot of good ones -- was Nov. 7, 2001, his first meeting against the Michael Jordan-led Wizards. That morning's Globe carried critical comments from MJ about Walker. Jordan said Walker needed to be smarter and play more team-oriented basketball. Walker responded with 31 points (on 11-of-15 shooting with only one trey) along with 10 rebounds and 9 assists as the Celtics won, 104-95. TV voice Mike Gorman went up to him afterward and told Walker he'd never seen him play a better game. Cheryl Miller sought him out for a postgame interview.
Walker abused the Wizards in the post that night ("Antoine was magnificent," Wizards coach Doug Collins said. "We couldn't stop him.") and we all wondered why Walker didn't do more of that. Is it a reach to say that now we're seeing the Antoine we should have been seeing all these years?
"People are always going to have an opinion as to how you're supposed to play," Walker said. "This team is different than the other team. My job is different because of the personnel. I'm not needed outside. I love posting up. I love it down there. It's fun. It makes the game so much easier for me."
"We use him in a different way," Rivers said. "The way we use him brings more value to him. Instead of him being out on the 3-point line dancing around with the ball, we give him the ball at the elbow in the post and we cut off the ball and he becomes a passer. If he can't make the pass, then he becomes a scoring threat. So I think it makes him dangerous the entire possession, instead of just when he catches it."
Walker also has helped the rebounding (which was up from before the trade) and by virtue of his existence, he takes the heat off Paul Pierce, who neither wanted it nor especially liked it. That may tell us as much about Pierce as it does about Walker, but there's no doubt that No. 34 is a lot happier with No. 8 around.
So, too, are Nos. 45, 42, 20, 30, 7, 12, 13, and 11. So, too, is the guy who used to wear No. 44, the one who traded Walker and then brought him back.
MVP? No, Walker won't win it. Nor should he.
But if this thing keeps going the way it's going, he presents a strong case for top five consideration. When did you think that was ever going to happen?