On the night of the 2007 NBA draft, Wally Szczerbiak wanted to chill out. He didn't even plan on watching the festivities from New York. His focus was to continue rehabbing from a major ankle operation in the spring and be ready for what he thought would be his second full season with the Celtics.
His wife, Shannon, was watching the draft, however. She quickly yelled to her husband when the news started to break about a possible Celtics-Sonics deal with her husband's name mentioned prominently.
No one was more unaware of what had been going on than Szczerbiak.
"It caught me completely by surprise," he said this week by phone from Seattle, where he now is with his third team, the Sonics. "I've moved on. I'm trying to get my career back on track coming back from surgery. There's no hard feelings on my part.
"I'm happy for them. It's a top-notch organization. I'm happy for Danny [Ainge]. I'm happy for Doc [Rivers]. I just wish I could have stayed on and become a part of it."
Well, he is a part of it, sort of like Cedric Maxwell is a part of the last Celtics championship team. Maxwell was used to acquire Bill Walton. If Wally stayed in Boston, that would have meant no Ray Allen. And no Ray Allen would have meant no Kevin Garnett. And no KG would have meant a lot of Michael Beasley and Derrick Rose jerseys at TD Banknorth Garden.
It's been a tough go so far for both Szczerbiak and the Sonics, who the Celtics will see for the first time Thursday night in Seattle. The recovery from surgery necessitated a slow transition and he only recently has started to play comfortably.
"I spent a lot of training camp just trying to get my timing back," he said. "I'm starting to get there."
As for his team, well, there's a new general manager, the locally spawned Sam Presti (Concord). There's a new coaching staff, headed by P.J. Carlesimo. There was the ridiculous start (0-8, but 8-11 since then).
And there, in all likelihood, will be a new address next season, as attempts to keep the Sonics in Seattle seem to be losing to what now seems the inevitable relocation to Oklahoma City, which happens to be the home base of the team's chairman.
"There were a lot of issues at the start of the season with all the new players, the new staff. It took time," Szczerbiak said. "The coaching staff has done a good job of putting the relocation situation aside and getting us to focus on the task at hand. I think once you get into the heart of the season, that's all you focus on - the games. And getting rest in between."
No talk about Seattle would be complete without a mention of putative Rookie of the Year Kevin Durant. Szczerbiak sure likes what he sees of the kid.
"He's doing as well as he can possibly do," Szczerbiak said. "He's 19 years old. He's got the weight of the franchise on his shoulders. That's not an easy burden. He's been up and down, which is understandable, but he works hard and is a great kid.
"He's also mature beyond his years."
Szczerbiak said he has grown closer with ex-Celtic Delonte West, who came along in the deal. (The Sonics got the fifth pick in the draft, which they used to select Jeff Green. The Celtics got Seattle's pick in the second round, which they used to select Glen Davis.) West, however, has been sidelined by plantar fasciitis and hasn't played since Dec. 2. He may not be available for the Celtics game, though knowing West, he'll do everything he can to make it.
And what about the other Kevin? As in The Big Ticket? Szczerbiak knows Garnett about as well as any player.
"It was a privilege to be his teammate for 6 1/2 years," Szczerbiak said. "He's a real pro. But I still am really impressed with how swiftly they came together. They brought in some great role players, guys who can defend, guys who know how to win. I'm happy for them."
Brown getting back on track
The Celtics soon plan to send assistant GM Dave Wohl out to the D-League's Anaheim Arsenal to scout a familiar name: Kedrick Brown.
Yup, the same Kedrick Brown the Celtics took with the 11th pick in the 2001 draft out of Okaloosa-Walton College and who basically turned out to be little more than a human pogo stick. He hasn't played in the NBA since 2005.
But after spending a couple of years of "getting his life in order and his career back on track," according to Arsenal coach Reggie Geary, Brown is back on the radar screen. He's averaging 14.6 points and 5.5 rebounds a game for Anaheim.
"He hasn't just been a pleasant surprise. He's been pleasant, period," Geary said of Brown. The Arsenal took Brown in the D-League draft all the while knowing the kid's NBA career had been of the crash-and-burn variety. He played two-plus seasons in Boston, managing to shine in Summer League but hardly anywhere else.
Danny Ainge traded him to Cleveland in 2003-04 in the Ricky Davis deal and Brown appeared in 55 games that season for both teams. He then ended up in Philadelphia - in a deal involving Eric Snow - playing eight games for the 2004-05 Sixers.
He then pretty much vanished, save for a July 2005 sighting while playing in the Southern California Summer Pro League. He looked at the time like he was on the Shawn Kemp diet. "We knew going into the draft about his history," Geary said. "We knew about his issues from the past. But we were told he did have his act together and his weight was good."
The Arsenal are using Brown at small forward, where he is being advertised as a "Bruce Bowen type." Brown always has been able to defend and Geary said the kid has developed a reliable 3-point shot, as well.
"Of all the guys on our team," Geary said, "I'd say he is the most NBA-ready. But he may need to spend some time here, even a full season, where he can put up good numbers, have no issues, and show he can be a contributor. There's been some interest in him so far, so I think it's probably going to happen."
Celtics' Pierce adds defense to his arsenal
Paul Pierce always used to bristle when it was suggested that defense wasn't his forte. Or, perhaps, if it was suggested, in a jest, of course, that it wasn't part of his repertoire.
That no longer is the case.
Two coaches who passed through Boston recently offered unsolicited tributes to Pierce for his defense.
"I think Paul Pierce is guarding as well as I've ever seen him," said Bucks coach Larry Krystkowiak. And Detroit's Flip Saunders said, "I've never seen Paul play defense the way he's played in the last two or three weeks. He's always been a guy who gets steals, but he's never been a guy who, one-on-one, will really go after you. He's been so aggressive."
Both coaches also said the same thing when asked for an explanation: the arrival of Kevin Garnett. "Kevin makes it contagious," Saunders said.
Celtics coach Doc Rivers doesn't care how it happened or why it happened, but he definitely does agree with Krystkowiak and Saunders that it did, indeed, happen. "It's been unbelievable," Rivers said of Pierce's defense. "His focus has climbed to such a high level. Before, at shootarounds, you had to say, 'Hey, Paul,' a few times. But he now understands that that is how we are going to win.
"Paul knows he's a good offensive player. Ray [ Allen] knows he's a good offensive player. Kevin has always known that you have to be a defender all the time.
"Right now, Paul is beginning to understand that."
The real road warriors
The Orlando Magic have their 18th road game of the season tonight, the most in the Eastern Conference, and, by the end of December, they will have played almost half of their roadies. They won't go west of the Mississippi River after Jan. 23. The Magic are an impressive 13-4 on the road, which is the main reason they are still among the top teams, record-wise, in the East. And they've already played 10 road games against the Western Conference, including all three teams in Texas. In fact, they've already played seven of the top eight teams in the West on the road; posting back-to-back wins against the Lakers and Warriors, no easy feat. The Celtics, by the way, have played only 10 road games, fewest in the conference along with Charlotte.
Blazing trail without Oden
Remember when the Trail Blazers had to sullenly announce in September that Greg Oden would miss the 2007-08 season following knee surgery? Coach Nate McMillan and general manager Kevin Pritchard both predicted better times ahead - what else could they say? - but did either of them think it would be December? Portland has won 10 straight games, moved three games over .500, and guaranteed the first winning month for the franchise since November 2004. Brandon Roy has been outstanding, winning back-to-back Player of the Week awards while averaging 23.6 points during the winning streak. And five of the wins came without the team's leading scorer and rebounder, LaMarcus Aldridge, who was out with plantar fasciitis. We all figured the Blazers would add another lottery pick in 2008 and be ready to roll the following November with a healthy Oden. But, even with the youngest roster in the league and the fourth-hardest schedule to date, they are ahead of schedule, while also knowing they could well have the 2008-09 Rookie of the Year on their roster already.
In the starting lineup . . . who?
An oddity of sorts has emerged recently: Two NBA veterans, neither of whom was in the league last season, started games for their teams. Richie Frahm started for the Clippers in their loss to the Toronto Raptors Dec. 18; and Andre Owens was a surprise, last-minute starter for Indiana for the ailing Jamaal Tinsley. In Frahm's case, it was even more strange in that he had just been signed by the Clippers after the team released Ruben Patterson. Frahm played 32 NBA games in 2005-06 (on two teams) and then was in Europe last season, but he was hurt and played just four games for Benetton Treviso. The Clippers signed him Dec. 14. He had 13 points and five rebounds in 32 minutes against Toronto. Owens played sparingly for the Utah Jazz in 2005-06 and spent last year in the NBA's D-League after getting waived by the Warriors in training camp. He had 5 points and three assists in 18 minutes in the Pacers' 102-85 victory over Philadelphia Dec. 19. Owens is the first Indianapolis native to play for the Pacers since Randy Wittman in 1992.
It's been a tough stretch for the Houston Rockets. They started out as winners of six of their first seven games, but have tumbled since. Their loss to Denver (in overtime) Thursday night was their fifth in six games and 13th in their last 19. During the TNT telecast, Magic Johnson, who also doubles as a Lakers part-owner and executive, said it was time to blow up the team. "[The Rockets have] got to trade [Yao Ming or Tracy McGrady]; it's not working out," Johnson said. "We've seen it for all these years; they get eliminated from the first round [of the playoffs]. I thought they were going to play well together, but it's not working. [Against Denver], the ball [was] moving more than it ever does watching a Houston game, and the same when Tracy McGrady was out. But the ball doesn't move when they're together. One of them has to go because it's not working." (TMac missed the Denver game.) Rockets GM Daryl Morey politely declined a chance to respond.
Las Vegas carryover
So many of the NBA players who played for USA Basketball last summer have carried their success over to the regular season, including MVP candidate Dwight Howard, whom the Celtics will face tonight. To a man, the players say the things they learned in Las Vegas definitely did not stay in Las Vegas. Take Michael Redd, for instance. His coach, Larry Krystkowiak, said he has noticed a change in his top player. "I think it helped him a lot," the coach said. "He was around Kobe and LeBron and those guys spent a lot of time talking. They even ripped Mike from time to time for not being a distributor. I think that's a little bit of an internal challenge for him now, to prove he can do more than just shoot it." Redd said the experience taught him more about "learning what it takes to win at the highest level as well as playing against the best players in the world, every day. Me and Kobe were battling each other all the time, challenging each other." . . . Old centers from Kiev never die. They simply materialize overseas. Thus it was for old friend Vitaly Potapenko, who in March 1999 was deemed so valuable by Rick Pitino that he expended a lottery pick to acquire the burly Ukrainian. (That would have been used on Shawn Marion.) Potapenko played only 13 minutes last season for Sacramento (he was hurt) and was not picked up by anyone for what would have been a 12th NBA season. So he signed last week with MTT Estudiantes in Madrid, which was in last place in the Spanish A division. Potapenko should feel right at home; he's been in only 13 playoff games in his NBA career.
Peter May can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Material from personal interviews, wire services, and league and team sources was used in this report.