It was left to Jermaine O'Neal to dismiss the Antoine Walker detractors, whose numbers may have grown last night.
"They can't win without Antoine," O'Neal said after the Celtics didn't win with Antoine, dropping a 90-85 decision and now facing elimination tomorrow night in Indianapolis to the resilient Pacers. "Don't start writing those stories about how they're better off without Antoine. They can't win without him."
They did win, rather easily, without Walker in Game 4 last Saturday in Indianapolis. Walker watched the rout from his hotel room, serving a one-game suspension. The Celtics welcomed him back into the starting lineup last night -- and Walker didn't have his A game when he needed to. He was on the bench when the Celtics made their best and biggest run of the night, and he was on the floor when the team couldn't overcome the Pacers down the stretch.
Walker acknowledged, "It's not going well for me in this series right now."
No, it's not. He's averaging 14 points a game -- second most on the team -- on 39 percent shooting. Those are not the numbers Walker delivered after The Trade. In his 24 regular-season games with the Celtics, he averaged 16.3 points on 44 percent shooting. In this series, he's attempted only seven free throws in 137 minutes; he had none last night. That tells you that despite an increase in low-post play and presence, he's still not getting calls. Or maybe he's not getting fouled.
He will surely take some hits for last night from all sides. He makes for a convenient dartboard, which is one of his attributes here, believe it or not. Still, it's pretty silly, especially when you think of where the Celtics would be had he not come back.
As Doc Rivers put it, "Antoine is the main reason I'm sitting here. It would be ludicrous not to bring him back."
The coach is right. Rivers never wavered about reinserting Walker into the starting lineup. "Antoine fit in pretty easy," Rivers said. "Our guys kind of stood around and watched Antoine early. That's not Antoine's fault."
Who knows why they watched, because it wasn't pretty. Walker struggled early, missing some short jump hooks, the kind of shot he's adopted since returning to the Celtics. He ended up with 10 points in 31 minutes. But he also had seven rebounds (tying the team high) and three assists (tying the team high), and made two big hoops in the fourth when the Celtics were threatening to overtake the Pacers.
It didn't happen. Stephen Jackson made a huge 3-pointer over Walker ("It was great defense by 'Toine, you can't get any better than that. I was blessed to hit it," Jackson said) and then, with the Celtics down, 85-81, he missed his third 3-pointer of the night, a decent look from in front of the Pacers' bench.
But what many will take away from this game was Walker's plus-minus for the night. He was replaced by Raef LaFrentz with 5:32 left in the third quarter during two made O'Neal free throws. After the makes, the Pacers led, 62-50. Walker sat and watched as the Celtics, using full-court pressure, battled back to make it a 5-point game after three (after Indy had blown the lead out to 15 on two occasions).
He did not return to the game until 6:57 remained -- and Indiana's lead was 6. That gnawed on him a bit after the fact.
"It's a tough decision for a coach, down 10 points, 12 points," Walker said. "I just missed a layup and had a turnover and he decided to go with another unit, a smaller unit. Playoff game, Game 5, you gotta respect that. I would have loved to have been out there on the floor. The guys did a terrific job getting us back in the game and when we put me back in, I just tried to come in and contribute.
"But it's tough," he went on. "Any competitor, any player who plays this game and loves this game, you want to be out there in the fire. It was just one of those situations where the coach went the other route."
When Walker did come back, he quickly made his presence felt with one of those off-balance, quirky, running layups he takes now and then, to make it a 4-point game (75-71 Indiana). He made another one that brought the Celtics to within 77-75, the closest they'd been since 25-23, early in the second period. That hoop came with 5:08 to play. He had only one other shot the rest of the way, the missed trey in the final minute.
"To be honest, it's basketball," Walker said, when asked about the numerous ups and downs of the night. "It's not going to be perfect. I'm not going to be perfect. I need to be a little bit more effective down low for this team."
He needs to be himself again. Somehow, that was good enough up to now. And there's still time.