Unofficially, it was Antoine Walker night at the FleetCenter. He acknowledged as much when he blew a kiss to fans as he left the court last night triumphant in his first home game since returning to the Celtics.
The sellout crowd was there to see Walker perform last night, chanting his name during the few lulls in action. Video montages on the jumbotron featured flashbacks of Walker, a veritable highlight reel from his first seven-season stint with the team. He could do no wrong, finishing with his third double-double (16 points, 13 rebounds), not to mention 4 blocked shots. But on what was unquestionably his night, Walker let his teammates shine and, in the end, that made all the difference.
When Paul Pierce (29 points) spun away from an enclosing double team and banked in a 5-footer with 46.1 seconds remaining, the Celtics could sense victory , and the shot would prove to be the eventual game-winner. But after a pair of missed free throws by Ricky Davis (29 points), Boston had to wait until Kobe Bryant (26 points) missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer to exhale with a 104-101 win.
The Celtics have yet to lose since reacquiring Walker at the trade deadline. Last night's victory was the team's third straight since Walker's return.
"Antoine has definitely given us a spark since he has been here," said Pierce. "We are just trying to keep it going. We felt like with the addition of Antoine, there has been a lot of pressure taken off not only me, but the rest of the guys on the team. The guys are excited about it. He is an unselfish player. He finds the open man, and he makes our jobs easy."
Unlike the first meeting of the season with the Lakers nine days ago without Walker, the Celtics stayed relatively composed in the fourth quarter. They made sure this game would not get away from them because of a lack of effort or intensity. The Celtics outhustled the Lakers in the fourth quarter and were barely rattled by a scoring burst from former teammates.
Former Celtics Jumaine Jones, Chucky Atkins, and Chris Mihm helped the Lakers gain a slight advantage at the end of the third and stay close throughout the fourth. Boston lost its halftime lead and trailed, 79-77, entering the last quarter. Los Angeles staged a 10-3 run at the end of the third, capped by a 3-pointer from Jones.
With the game tied, 83-83, a little more than two minutes into the fourth , the Celtics pieced together a 9-2 spurt and went ahead, 92-85. But that was before Atkins went on a 7-0 run by himself with Bryant essentially locked down by Davis. The spurt tied the contest, 92-92, with 4:16 remaining. Atkins (29 points) added an 18-footer to produce another tie, then Mihm did the same with a one-handed tip-in.
The Celtics were able to gain some distance on the Lakers with a sequence in which Walker went in for a layup, Pierce drew an offensive foul from Lamar Odom, and Davis capitalized on the turnover with an 18-footer. But that was not enough. It would take free throws from Pierce and the Bryant miss to assure victory. Even though it was a nervewracking finish, Walker was happy to participate in "a total good team effort."
"There's not a lot of pressure on me to score the basketball, and that's a big thing for me," said Walker. "I can just play ball and do a lot of other things on the floor, whether it's hustling, rebounding, making a good pass. With me, Paul, and Ricky, we're going to be doing most of the scoring. We just have to feed off each other. Whose-ever night it is, we [just need] to ride it that night."
Leading up to last night's game, Walker wanted to "bring the jungle back to the FleetCenter." He succeeded even before tipoff, returning in his trademark No. 8 jersey courtesy of a rule-bending reprieve by the league. The crowd gave Walker a standing ovation as his name was announced and he revealed the switch from No. 88. A playoff-like buzz remained throughout the game.
"Very special," said Walker when describing the reaction to his introduction. "It was better than when I came back with Dallas. The fans have been so great here and the people in Boston have been great to me. Hopefully, I can make them proud."
The only roar that may have eclipsed those for Walker came at the end of the second when Pierce threw an alley-oop pass for Davis, who finished with a reverse dunk that put Boston ahead, 56-51, at the break. "If we come out as a team, put our minds to it, and play like we know how to play, this team can be real dangerous," said Davis. "We've got a three-headed monster now."
Another thing Walker wanted upon his return to Boston was to "just fit in" with the rest of players on the team. He succeeded on that account, too.
In addition to letting Pierce and Davis take the lead on offense, Walker led with enthusiasm from the sidelines when not in the game. He passed along advice to Marcus Banks and Pierce. He kept telling teammates, "Let's go," eventually firing up the Celtics enough to close the second period with a 15-5 run. Now, the Celtics hope to sustain the buzz generated by Walker both on the floor and in the stands.
"It was just great energy in the building," said coach Doc Rivers. "I remember that in the other building [the Boston Garden]. I was never a part of that, but I remember that against us. It was really, really nice to see. Now, it's our job, in my opinion, to earn it by winning. [Last night], it was because Antoine returned and the people wanted to see him. Now, it's up to us to keep them [coming and cheering] by winning."