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JACKIE MACMULLAN

Ready to earn his keep

He arrived 10 minutes after the pregame pizza, but the lingering aroma of cheese and pepperoni did nothing to deter him. Antoine Walker never reached inside the box. He opted for some stretching exercises and a massage instead. He is leaner, smarter, and -- what was it the Celtics called him again on his way out of town? -- ah, yes. He's less "entitled," as well.

"My biggest fear," Walker confided, two hours before tapoff against the suddenly blue (both literally and figuratively) Los Angeles Lakers, "was that I would keep getting traded and have to play for eight different teams.

"The first time you get traded, you lose value."

Ask Lakers forward Brian Grant, donned in the retro baby blue uniform of the former Minneapolis Lakers last night, what happens when you change teams. He was lauded as a young future All-Star when he was drafted as the eighth pick by the Sacramento Kings in 1994. More than 10 years and four teams later, Grant is a "nice" player with cool hair who lost his identity amid the carousel of transactions that have muddled his career.

Walker never wanted to leave Boston in the first place. He was a lightning rod in his first tour of duty here, playing the role of a leader, an All-Star, and the guy with too many sour expressions, too many questionable 3s, and that reprehensible wiggle.

In spite of himself, Walker found himself missing the good, the bad, and the ugly of Boston. You think your basketball team has been irrelevent the past couple of years? The Atlanta Hawks have been obsolete for almost a decade.

"Atlanta was a different city," Walker acknowledged. "It was hard to get anything going there. I told them, `If you don't think you want to re-sign me, them get me someplace meaningful."'

Boston qualified. So did Indiana, Philly and Seattle.

"I was excited that people didn't lose interest in me," he said. "I didn't fall into that hole."

That's not to say his goodwill tour from Boston to Dallas to Atlanta and back to Boston again hasn't been without its pitfalls. Walker lost his All-Star status and his clout as a high-priced free agent. The Celtics are betting few teams -- if any -- will offer him more than the veteran's exception when the summer rolls around.

Can he live with what could be a more than $8 million pay cut and play for $6 million -- or less?

"To be honest, I'm not going to live with that," Walker answered. "I bring too much to the table to settle for that. I'm definitely saying I'm not going to try and get the max [contract]. But asking me to go [down that far] is a bit much.

"I'd rather not go into free agency, but I realize Danny [Ainge] and Wyc [Grousbeck] want to see how this works out. Honestly, though, I'm so happy to be in this situation that I don't want to worry about all that right now."

He has responded to specific criticisms of his game with specific results. He has completely revamped his eating habits (neither cheese nor pepperoni pizza make the cut) and handed over his conditioning regiment to Tim Grover, the well-known fitness guru whose most celebrated client was Michael Jordan.

As for calls for him to stop hoisting up 3s and get his 6-foot-9-inch frame down on the block where it belongs, Walker has gotten the message. He has taken eight treys since joining the Celtics three games ago, which qualifies as remarkable restraint for him. So why did that adjustment take so long?

"Hey, I'm a basketball player," Walker said. "I watched the Philly game last night and they took 30 3-pointers. You know, it's a system. I love OB [former Celtics coach Jim O'Brien]. He was really good to me.

"But this [Celtics] team needs something different from me. They need someone to post up on the block and rebound. They have enough perimeter guys."

As Walker walked into the FleetCenter last night and made a beeline for the home team locker room, the buzz in the arena was palpable. The game was sold out, although it's hard to determine how much of that was Antoine and how much of that was the curiousity named Kobe Bryant, who's still got game, but is undergoing some image reconstruction of his own.

Walker was greeted with a thunderous ovation last night. Al Jefferson made the Bourque-ian gesture of relinquishing his No. 8 to Walker (look out, Tiny Archibald, the rookie is invading your turf now), and it was almost like old times for 'Toine.

The happiest guy to see Walker return has been Paul Pierce, who absorbed the ire of impatient fans who didn't have Antoine to kick around anymore. Pierce has never been comfortable as a vocal leader; Walker isn't comfortable unless he's talking to somebody about something.

"Paul's glad I'm back," Walker confirmed. "He was on an island. It's so hard. It's like I told [Atlanta teammate] Al Harrington: `The toughest thing is to do it by yourself. We've got to work with each other, so when we win, we win together, and when we lose, we lose together."'

Harrington was in Utah last night trying to beat the Jazz -- alone. Walker was at the Fleet along with Pierce and Ricky Davis and Raef Lafrentz and Delonte West trying to stave off the singlehanded efforts of Kobe.

"I haven't forgotten Al," Walker said. "I talk to him every day. I watch the Hawks games, and let him know what I saw."

Last night, the Celtics saw Walker score 16 points on 6-of-17 shooting. He grabbed 13 rebounds (6 of them offensive). He made his share of mistakes, among them failing to dish off during a three-on-two break late in the game that resulted in a Chris Mihm block, and an airball 3 with 4:52 left and the Celtics holding on to a 92-88 advantage.

"Paul was open," lamented Walker. "I saw him out of the corner of my eye at the last minute. I should have gotten it to him. But coach told me not to worry about it."

He redeemed himself by putting back a Pierce airball for 2, then exhibiting his best Kevin McHale up-and-under impersonation with 2:25 left to give the Celtics a 98-96 lead. Boston never trailed after that and won, 104-101, to raise their record to 3-0 in the Antoine Redux phase of their season.

"The one thing I told the young guys in the shower was, `The way it was tonight, it gets 10 times better in April, when we're in the playoffs,' " said Walker. Doc Rivers's lineup down the stretch was a delicious blend of the old and the new: Walker, Pierce, Davis, Jefferson, and rookie Delonte West.

It may or may not be a hint of the future. That's up to Antoine. He has proven he can come home again, but the only way he gets to stay is if he and his hometown team can agree on what he's truly entitled to earn.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is macmullan@globe.com.

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