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Sporting News Celtics report
Team Report posted OCTOBER 13, 1999
By TSN correspondent
Rick Pitino already has chosen the bridge off which he says he'll jump if
the Celtics don't make the playoffs this season. It's near Boston University,
where he used to coach, and spans the Charles River from Boston to Cambridge.
He may not have to worry about jumping, though. If the Celtics stumble, the
fans -- and maybe some of his players -- will push him first.
This is Year 3 of the Pitino regime, and the coach/president already has put
himself and his young team on the spot. Borrowing a page from his idol, Pat
Riley, he is making a guarantee: a playoff spot for the Celtics after four
straight seasons in the lottery. Riley, of course, guaranteed a repeat title
in 1988 -- and got it. The stakes were a little higher for him, however.
Guaranteeing a playoff spot on the surface isn't that risky, especially for
a team with a lot of talent on paper and a totally absorbed, previously
The problem lies in the mathematics. Three teams in the East finished ahead
of the Celtics and didn't make the playoffs. One of those, Charlotte, looks
in excellent shape to contend again. So there has to be some leapfrogging
from below. Pitino needs everything to fall his way; no injuries, improvement
across the board and a harmonious clubhouse.
The Celtics aren't without talent, and many coaches simply raise their
eyebrows when they scan the Boston roster. Antoine Walker can't possibly be
as out of shape as he was last season, and that will be a huge difference
right away. Walker is talented, versatile and enthusiastic, and he will
want to atone for last season's disappointment.
The Celtics have two people who can score in Walker and Paul Pierce. They
have an experienced point guard in Kenny Anderson and, finally, a presence
in the middle in Vitaly Potapenko. They now have toughness in the frontcourt
with the addition of Danny Fortson, too. They have a more than adequate
bench, which plays a big role on every Pitino team.
They also have what no one else has: Pitino and his frantic style. The
Celtics didn't press much last season because of lack of practice time, but
look for that to change dramatically. Pitino will revert to his harassing,
trapping style, making the Celtics the least-liked team to play against.
He is going to win games simply because opponents are not going to want to
put up with what the Celtics dish out.
The Celtics should again lead the league in forcing turnovers, helping them
immeasurably when their offense stumbles. They again will be fun to watch.
Pierce had a terrific outing in the L.A. Summer League, and big things will
be expected of him. If the Celtics can rebound and run, they will be
entertaining and hard to beat. They also may be beneficiaries of the new
rules changes, which tend to favor athletic, mobile players.
Walker is the captain, and it's time he starting acting like one. He's every
bit as immature as he is talented, and one of the huge holes on the Celtics
is their lack of veteran leadership. There's a good reason for this: Veterans
don't want to play for Pitino. He's too in-your-face for the veteran NBA
player, and his style is too physically demanding, but Pitino has made
maturity a top issue.
Three years into his reign, the Celtics still have the make and feel of a
college team, one that is young and raw and whose image and identification
is still wholly wrapped around the coach. Pitino does little to deflect
that; he has been on the cover of the media guide the last two years and
is the franchise's most visible public presence. After a while, the players
tend to resent that.
Another red-flag area is defense. The team was and still looks to be a
marginal defensive team, very poor in man-to-man situations. That's why
Pitino likes to trap. But you can't trap if you don't score, and you don't
score unless you rebound. However, Fortson was the league's fourth-best
rebounder last season despite playing only 28 minutes per game.
The Celtics were one of the poorest shooting teams in the league last year,
in part because they had few options on offense while Walker and Anderson
fought over the ball. Pitino sought a remedy by picking up forward Eric
Williams for his penetrating skills and swingman Calbert Cheaney.
PLAYER ON THE SPOT
Walker is going to feel like he has a bull's-eye on his uniform this season.
The fans simply haven't warmed to him, and it's mostly a matter of style,
not substance. Pitino contributed to this by making him the captain after
one year on the team, then re-signing Walker to a six-year, $71 million
Walker is an undisciplined player on the floor who needs to start showing
better leadership skills and better decision-making skills. He's always
among the leaders in missed field goals, which makes his scoring statistics
almost meaningless. He did improve his free-throw shooting last year but
still is woeful in that area.
Last season was a painful one for Walker. The Boston fans starting booing
him after he turned in a couple of awful games. He said he didn't know if
he was the kind of player the fans wanted. It will always be hard for him
in Boston, mainly because he is the Man in this group and the previous Men
are all in the Hall of Fame.
The Celtics feel as though they did better than anyone else in the draft.
The reason? They got their pick in March. They traded away Boston's first
pick along with backup center Andrew DeClercq for Cleveland backup center
Pitino's reasoning was sound: The Celtics needed a big, strong presence in
the post, and Potapenko instantly gave them that. They would not have found
anything close to him in the draft. And they also didn't need another rookie
if they were going to try to get more mature. Pitino still takes some heat
for the trade, mainly because Potapenko is never going to be an elite player
and was a backup in Cleveland.
You can imagine how the Cavs saw this deal; they traded one backup for
another, saved money and got a No. 1 pick to boot. But the criticism of
Pitino in this instance is somewhat unfair because he did upgrade the team
in a critical area. He has made some dumb moves, but this wasn't one. They
got a center with their draft pick; how many teams can say that? The Celtics
drafted Texas guard Kris Clack in the second round, but he will be a
longshot. Boston already has 15 players under contract.
The Celtics' most effective play in tight games is the trap. They lack a
true go-to player on offense, although Pierce made some big baskets late
and Walker thinks he's one.
But the Celtics' best weapon when the game is on the line is their trap
because it confuses and panics opponents. There's nothing more revealing
than to see the opponent make a stupid pass, dribble backward and generally
react as if it had never seen a trap before. Teams simply don't have the
time, inclination or desire to spend a lot of practice minutes trying to
beat a trap they'll see only a few times a season.
Pitino complicates the matter further for the opposition with two very
different presses. One involves pressuring the inbounds passer. The other
allows the opponent to inbound the ball, then the noose tightens.
Pitino's Playoff Promise may well end up like a lot of his statements:
meaningful when he said it, but not much else. The players are going to feel
a lot of pressure to perform at a level they haven't yet attained.
Their opponents will be better in the East, although a couple look to be
rebuilding. Still, reaching the playoffs should not be a goal in and of
itself, for it signifies only that the team is no worse than the eighth-best
club. But you have to walk before you run. The question is whether they
can walk the walk. Pitino has put himself, and his team, on the line. The
situation is ripe for implosion.