WALTHAM -- To describe the pain of playing the triangle offense last season for the Lakers, Gary Payton called himself a crash test dummy.
"That's all I was, a test dummy," said Payton. "Send me in the car, smash me up, and hope that I don't make no trouble. That's how it was last year. This year, I'm driving the car for real. If I crash, I'm going to hurt myself. Last year, it was going to be that dummy. I was always getting hurt. This year, it's going to be fun. I can't wait till we get started."
In the 2004 playoffs, the pain of playing coach Phil Jackson's triangle offense, a system that was ill-suited to his strengths, became unbearable, making him a sharp-tongued malcontent, and the favored Lakers unraveled in the NBA Finals. But there will not be a repeat performance for Payton this postseason. The Lakers' dummy has become the Celtics' indispensable veteran leader. Coach Doc Rivers believes Boston would not be a playoff team without Payton. It is a symbiotic relationship. Payton has been reenergized by the prospect of playing in the postseason on his terms.
"You go into the playoffs thinking now that you're going to play the way that you want to play," said Payton. "You're not going to play that dummy role, that crash dummy role where you go and sit over in the corner and don't get to do what you want to do. So, this year is a lot different. I'm going to have the ball in my hands a lot. I'm going to make decisions. I get to do the things that I want to do, not go over there and run the triangle and sit in the corner and be a spot-up shooter. This year is going to be a lot different. This team is more relaxed. We've got a lot of guys that instill confidence in each other and we're going to play basketball."
The Celtics want Payton to do what he does best, namely serve as a catalyst for ball movement and defense. In the three games against the Pacers this season, Payton averaged 9 assists and 12.7 points. He finished the season averaging 11.3 points and 6.1 assists in 33 minutes per game. Given the intensity of playoff games, Rivers will take a wait-and-see approach to the number of minutes Payton plays.
Throughout the playoffs, Payton expects to take a more active role on the court and on the sideline. Payton claims to be a different player during the postseason, raising his game.
"I take more control," said Payton. "I make more decisions on my own. I've got to control the team a little bit more than I did. It's not free range for me to make mistakes out here. I'm not going to make a lot of mistakes in the playoffs. Last year was different because it wasn't the style of basketball I wanted to play. Here, I play the basketball I want to play. I take shots when I want to. I can run what plays I want to and Doc is going to be there to support me. We sat down and talked about what's going on and how we should play the Indiana Pacers and what I should do to run this team and talk to the guys. I'm going to sit down and talk to every rookie. I'm going to be the coach on the floor and Doc is going to be the coach off the floor."
Payton will focus his energies on assisting rookies Tony Allen, Al Jefferson, Justin Reed, and Delonte West, as well as second-year players Marcus Banks and Kendrick Perkins. He takes pride in the development of the younger players. In fact, Payton commented that he returned to Boston after being bought out by Atlanta because he wanted to continue mentoring the rookies. He said he sat out Wednesday's regular-season finale against New Jersey to give Banks and West more experience in a game played at postseason intensity.
As the postseason starts, Payton hopes to pass along lessons he learned as a rookie from Seattle teammate Xavier McDaniel. If Banks and West follow the example set by Payton, the young point guards will know to value every possession and trust their teammates. As a result of his playoff experience, Payton knows the value of team chemistry.
"That's what playoff basketball is about, what team jells together first and makes that run," said Payton. "The Detroit Pistons did that great last year. When the playoffs came, they all jelled together. They played defense together. They played offense like one unit. That's why they beat us in the Finals, because they were more as one than we were. Chauncey [Billups] knew that Ben Wallace or Rasheed Wallace was going to be back there to block shots. That's the way it is. And everybody who came off the bench played their role. If they played five minutes, they played the hardest five minutes of that game. If we come in here and jell together, we'll win basketball games."
Payton does not see the 2005 postseason as a chance to prove himself, to show that his stay with the Lakers was an aberration in a Hall of Fame career.
"I don't have anything to prove," said Payton. "It's not about me. It's about the Boston Celtics and the Indiana Pacers. I've proved a lot of stuff over 15 years. One playoff series last year or a playoff run that didn't go my way, I can't go back and have any grudges against anything. It happened that way. Now, I'm back in the playoffs and I'm just going to play."
It's also not about playing for a contract with Boston next season. Payton will not let the length of the Celtics' playoff run influence whether he re-signs with the team this offseason as a free agent. He has more important matters to think about at the moment.
"This playoff stuff has nothing to do with [where I play next season]," said Payton. "I've got to go home and think about stuff like that. I'll go home in the summer and I'll relax and make my decision about things. [The playoff run] won't change my mind at all.
"The whole year changed my mind. How was this team? How was this coaching staff? How was everything? And it rates great. I love playing here. The best two coaches I ever played for in the NBA are George Karl and Doc Rivers. To come back to Doc would be great, especially with this team that we have. You go into the draft, into the offseason, and you add a little bit of spice to it and you don't know what will happen next year."