WALTHAM -- Chucky Atkins does not believe in tact or small talk or polite conversation. Cocktail parties, political conventions, and peace negotiations are not his thing. But put him in a huddle and let him say his piece and you have the playoff-bound Celtics.
"I'm the type of person who says what's on my mind, whether it be good or bad," Atkins said yesterday. "I'm not bashful. If I see somebody not doing what they're supposed to do, it's my job as a point guard to speak up. I even get on myself. Nobody is really exempt. You always know where you stand with me. There ain't no sugarcoating. I tell you the way I feel. We deal with it and that's that."
Executive director of basketball operations Danny Ainge may have his vision. But what the Celtics really needed this season was a voice. They missed the kind of in-your-face honesty Atkins provides, the kind of unedited criticism that was once the domain of Eric Williams and Antoine Walker.
"You look at all the good teams around the league, all the playoff teams, and everybody thinks the star of the team, the captain, is the one who has to show all the leadership," said Paul Pierce. "That's bogus. It comes in all forms. You've got a guy like Chucky who's well respected on this team. He's another veteran who's been through the wars. He's helped me out tremendously. He's eased a lot of pressure and helped me get my points across. It was what me and [Williams] and [Walker] all used to do, be a combination of leaders."
With Atkins accustomed to his new teammates and starting at point guard, the Celtics surged during March, compiling a 9-5 record and averaging 96.2 points and 20 assists per game while shooting 45 percent from the floor. The Celtics hit their stride during a six-game winning streak when Atkins averaged 11.3 points and nearly five assists. Not surprisingly, Pierce and Ricky Davis scored with greater ease over that stretch. Pierce averaged 21.3 points during the winning streak, while Davis averaged 11.8.
The fact that the Celtics enjoyed their greatest success of the season shortly after Atkins took over the point was no coincidence. Atkins not only knew what to say, he knew how to get his teammates the ball and how to ease the responsibilities placed on Pierce.
"When a point guard comes off a pick-and-roll, there's about four decisions he has to make in a split second, and Chucky usually makes the right decisions," said coach John Carroll.
"So, he's made a lot of people's lives a lot easier since he's been here. He knows what plays to run and how to run them. He knows what to look for. He brought tremendous offensive organization to a team that desperately needed that."
If the Celtics are to regroup, recall how to play well as a team and what it takes to win, Atkins will be the most vocal reminder. Atkins took on that task in Atlanta last Saturday, while the Hawks dismantled the Celtics. Thoroughly disgusted by the selfish play he saw at Philips Arena, the one-pass-and-shoot mentality of his teammates, Atkins spoke up during a first-half timeout. He lashed out at his teammates, reminding the Celtics what they could do.
The benefit of playing together has been a common theme for Atkins over the past week. The night before Boston played in Atlanta, he criticized his teammates, calling them "12 players going in 12 different directions." At least, that was the sanitized version.
"[When I got here], I just basically said to myself, `These guys need somebody that's sort of used to winning,' " said Atkins, who was sent from the Pistons to the Celtics Feb. 19, just hours before the trading deadline. " `They need somebody who knows how to win, to just lead, not necessarily by scoring or by doing anything particular, just to light a fire up under them and let them know all they have to do is deliver.' I just try to set them up and make everything as easy as possible. A lot of times it's difficult to do a lot of things at once. A lot of times guys want to handle the ball and score. If you can concentrate on just scoring, I think that makes your job a little bit easier.
"I brought the team something that they didn't have at the time. Every team has some direction, whether it be good or bad. I just ended up [bringing] a positive direction for this team. We've got guys that can score. We've got guys that can defend. We've got guys that can rebound. But something that this team needed that doesn't really come up on the scoresheet is leadership, and I think that I kind of bring that to this team."
When asked for his honest assessment of the Celtics, Atkins didn't hesitate to call them a "mediocre team." But that perspective doesn't prevent Atkins from believing the Celtics can play well against the Pacers in the first round of the playoffs, which begins tomorrow in Indianapolis. He believes the series will come down to tempo. If Boston lets Indiana dictate the tempo, there will be trouble. If the Celtics can quicken the pace, Atkins is confident they will "be fine." As the starting point guard, Atkins will have a lot to do with the speed of the game. But above all, Atkins knows his leadership and playoff experience with Detroit in 2002 and '03 will be valuable.
When Atkins played for the Pistons, Rick Carlisle was his coach. Carlisle now guides the Pacers. Atkins knows the way Carlisle likes to coach. Carlisle knows the way Atkins likes to play. So, Atkins figures the advantages of familiarity cancel each other out. Although Atkins asked for a trade when Carlisle benched him last season, the 29-year-old point guard credits Carlisle with giving him a more complete understanding of the game.
"It's not a love/hate relationship," said Atkins. "I like Rick. I respect Rick and everything he's done for me. He made me look at basketball in a different sense. A lot of times when you play basketball, you just play. But thanks to him, I sort of look at the game from a coach's perspective. With him, he breaks it down to a mental thing. I never really looked at the game like that."
Carlisle was quick to return the compliment.
"Chucky Atkins is a proven playoff player and a pro," said Carlisle. "Those are the two highest compliments a coach can give a player. I know all too well what Chucky is capable of in a playoff series."
Everyone expects the Pacers will have an easy time with the Celtics. Everyone also knows Atkins will have something to say about that.