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JACKIE MACMULLAN

Going concerns

Make no mistake about it, Walker has earned his keep

WALTHAM -- Doc Rivers sensed there was trouble even before Game 5 against the Indiana Pacers started Tuesday night.

"I told [assistant coach] Tony Brown right before tap off, 'I don't like this,' " the Celtics coach revealed in a private moment yesterday. "I told him, 'I'm worried about this Antoine Walker thing.' You could feel it in the building. All those negative vibes. It totally ticked me off, to tell you the truth.

"It hurts the team. You think they don't notice it? The minute 'Toine takes one bad shot, it starts. Everybody is on him, and it affects all of us. Him. His teammates. It's just so incredibly unfair. We don't get here without him."

I have no idea what will happen tonight as the Celtics attempt to keep their season afloat in Game 6 against the Pacers, but I do know this: anyone who thinks Boston has a better chance of winning without Antoine Walker is delusional.

Talk about appalling short-term memories. Have you forgotten how inept this team was on the boards before Walker got here? Have you conveniently wiped the hapless offensive outings from your mind that plagued the pre-Walker Celtics this season? The bloodthirsty shut-ins who want a pound of flesh from Walker are convinced that since he skipped Game 4 because of a suspension, and Boston rolled by 31 points, he is the problem. His detractors further point to his extended stay on the bench in Game 5, when the Celtics mounted a comeback, as evidence they play better when he's not in there.

Sorry, but it's anecdotal evidence. While clearly the team rallied without him in Game 4, the suspension, in a warped sort of way, may have been the wake-up call they needed to recognize the urgency in this series.

There will be no argument here that Walker didn't play well in Game 5, but he was hardly alone. That line snakes to the rear.

Walker returned with 6:57 left Tuesday night. He converted on two little floaters in the lane, and missed a wide open 3-pointer from the right side late in the action. He, along with Paul Pierce (killer turnover), Ricky Davis (24-second violation), and Raef LaFrentz (an awkward, ill-advised 3-pointer) made mistakes down the stretch, further contributing to the notion the Boston veterans still don't exhibit the necessary poise or maturity to win big games.

That's veterans with an s

Walker is flawed, but he's also the best rebounder on the team. He's a reliable ballhandler, a fine passer, and a good perimeter shooter who has worked to modify his shot selection. He is a leader, a worker, an integral part of the club.

He's also a lightning rod unlike no other athlete in town.

"I found that out as soon as I got here," said LaFrentz, who came to Boston as part of the first Walker trade. "People were either really happy I was here, or really [ticked] off I was here, depending on how they felt about Antoine. For whatever reason, they're particularly quick to praise him, then kill him. That's tough for any player to go through. He's human, you know."

It was stunning how many unhappy patrons were grumbling as they exited the Fleet Tuesday night that Boston should not re-sign the veteran forward when he becomes a free agent this summer.

Walker brought some of this on himself by foolishly earning that suspension. His back-to-back confrontations with Indiana center Jermaine O'Neal in Game 3 were not the issue; it was his decision not to walk off the floor peacefully when he was ejected that landed him in trouble. Had he not charged toward referee Bennett Salvatore, and tossed fellow official Tom Washington aside in the process, he would have escaped further penalties.

"The first time, O'Neal grabbed my jersey," said Walker, in his first public comments on the altercation. "The second time, he tried to grab me. So I'm thinking, 'OK, now he wants to fight me.' I hear the whistle, and I know I'm probably going [to get tossed].

"I wasn't trying to charge [Salvatore]. I was just trying to get to him to talk to him and ask him why he didn't toss both of us. I didn't even see the other official. I didn't even know who I was pushing away."

Obviously, Walker should know better. It could have cost his team dearly -- but it didn't. He apologized to his team, and tried to "fit in" upon his return to the starting lineup for Game 5. He pressed, missed easy shots, suffered a number of defensive breakdowns in the first half, and found himself sitting (deservedly) for a stretch of more than 10 minutes.

"To tell you the truth, I didn't think I was going back in," he acknowledged yesterday.

Let it be duly noted Walker neither pouted nor sulked during his time on the sideline. Ask yourself how many other high-profile athletes in this town would have handled it as gracefully as he did.

Of course, that doesn't matter. He has become the symbol of everything flawed in Celtics green. Even he understands his future could well hinge on what happens in the next 24 hours. Asked if he thought his chances of remaining in Boston have been altered by the team's -- and his own -- first-round struggles, Walker answered, "Probably so."

"To be honest, I'd say it's 50-50 [on whether they keep me]," he conceded. "When I came back, the expectations on this team became very high. They should have been high -- I'm not arguing with that.

"I've done my best in the 25 to 27 games I've been here to try and fit in. I really believe the longer I'm around Doc and this system, the better I'll do with it. But I don't know if I'll be given that chance.

"Hopefully we'll get out of the first round and we won't have to worry about it."

Walker has been around Boston long enough to know that if a team falls short, someone has to pay. He's also astute enough to realize his head is permanently affixed to the Celtics microscope.

"There's just always so much said and written about the way I play, and what I do," Walker said. "Everyone has an opinion on me. And when we don't win games, the mistakes I make seem to get highlighted a little more.

"I'm 28 years old. I'm in the prime of my career. I want to be in a situation where I can help a team win. I don't want to move around anymore. Obviously Boston is my first home. I'd love to make it work here, but . . ."

Will he be welcome next season? That will all depend on the price.

But that's a discussion for another day. The more immediate and pertinent numbers are these: when Boston scored 100 points or more in the regular season, its record was 35-10. When it didn't, it was 10-27. Enough said.

Here's another little stat Rivers shared: his team passed the ball two times or fewer 81 percent of the time in Game 5, and shot 34 percent. The other 19 percent of the time, when they passed the ball three times or more, they shot 69 percent.

The inherent message is to share the wealth and stop pressing to make the spectacular play. That includes Walker, Pierce, Davis, and Payton. The coach also reminded everyone the small lineup they're clamoring for was the unit that gave Indiana a big lead in the first place.

"That had nothing to do with Antoine," Rivers said, "but somehow people have forgotten that."

"I'm used to it," said Walker, without the slightest hint of rancor.

His coach isn't.

"To put this on Antoine Walker is bull," Rivers said. "After Game 1, I didn't see anyone saying Antoine Walker shouldn't play. When we traded for Antoine Walker and made that run, I didn't hear anyone saying, 'Hey, you should go small and not play Antoine.' We win one game -- one desperate game -- without Antoine, and now we shouldn't play him?

"It's not fair to him and it's not fair to the team. I know Antoine didn't get in the flow [Tuesday], but neither did Paul, Gary, or Ricky. If you want to blame someone for that, blame me."

That's not how it will go. If the Celtics lose tonight, it will be 'Toine's fault. He'll get blamed for Mark Blount's DNP, Jeff Van Gundy's hefty fine, and the leaks in the Big Dig tunnel.

Kiss off his board work and his effort and his offense if you want. Good luck finding someone else to take his place.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her email address is macmullan@globe.com


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