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Wallace makes his big presence felt

By Gary Washburn
May 17, 2010

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ORLANDO, Fla. — There were two Bud Lights waiting on the top of Rasheed Wallace’s locker following the Celtics’ 92-88 win over the Magic in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals. It’s Wallace’s postgame beverage of choice and someone in the Celtics organization added an additional frosty bottle as a reward for his contributions yesterday.

Wallace’s preference for the occasional adult beverage following games raised eyebrows in the Celtics locker room. That ritual was one of several that caused his teammates to challenge his focus and dedication this season. And Wallace’s answer was to continue to function as he had the previous 14 years — headstrong and defiant.

Near the end of the season, when it appeared the addition of Wallace would do nothing to help the Celtics’ postseason hopes, he responded to questions about his devotion with an assurance that he would produce in the playoffs.

And that’s why the Celtics brought him to Boston. His legacy as a skilled but volatile player already has been established. Wallace will be remembered for his immense skills and not his passion. There is little he can do to change that perception, but what he has done the past six playoff games is convince his teammates that he is indeed focused and reliable. That wasn’t always the case this season.

His 13 points yesterday were overshadowed by his tough defense on Dwight Howard. While Wallace no longer possesses the athleticism to tussle with Howard without fouling, he has the savvy to use those fouls wisely and the tricks to frustrate the Orlando strongman into mistakes.

Howard was ready to lose his cool in the second half because Wallace served as a mental and physical menace. He trash-talked, used his hips to push Howard out of comfortable position, and when he fouled Howard hard as he rose for a dunk, Wallace shook his head to indicate there would be no easy baskets here.

At this point in his career, Wallace’s primary motivation is playoff basketball. Regular-season performances mean little because personal accomplishments won’t enhance his reputation. Only championship rings will.

“Hell yeah, this is what I enjoy,’’ said Wallace, exiting Amway Arena. “It’s [gut-check] time. Sometimes a lot of those jump shots, some people [get tense] but, hey, it’s that time.’’

The Celtics desperately needed someone who wouldn’t back down from Howard, and Wallace’s biggest strength — and perhaps biggest weakness — is his refusal to fully respect an opponent. Howard is tops on his list.

“You’ve got to be physical because he plays physical and that’s the thing we looked at over the past few series,’’ Wallace said. “Guys [for Charlotte and Atlanta] just let him do whatever he wanted to do down there. We’re definitely going to fight him. We have a lot of fouls.’’

Wallace was uneven during the first-round series against Miami but the Celtics didn’t need his production to eliminate the Heat. The Cavaliers were different and after Wallace slept through the 101-93 Game 1 loss, close friend Kevin Garnett had some strong suggestions for how Wallace needed to change his approach.

“He’s aggressive. I think his perspective is a little different from how he was looking at it before,’’ Garnett said. “Plus, Sheed’s a dirty veteran. He responds when you give two cents or when you actually are being straight and upfront with him. He’s a [no-nonsense] type of guy. I had a real sound conversation with him, as did Doc [Rivers] and [Marquis Daniels] and some other guys and it’s up to Sheed. And he’s a big part of when we win, and when we win big it’s because he’s sound and influenced the game.’’

Garnett is one of the handful of veterans Wallace respects and listens to, and it was apparent Wallace was mentally distracted leading up to Game 2 against Cleveland. Since that little chat with Garnett, Wallace is averaging 8 points, 2.2 rebounds, 48 percent shooting, and 46 percent 3-point shooting.

He has become a major asset off the bench, especially since Kendrick Perkins attracts fouls like mosquitoes on a humid Florida day and Glen Davis’s defensive aggression can lead to mistakes. Believe it or not, Wallace has served as a stabilizer, and that steadiness has helped regain the confidence of Rivers, who, like Garnett, called out Wallace after Game 1 against the Cavaliers.

“One thing I’ll say about Rasheed and he said it throughout, ‘Doesn’t matter what I do during the regular season I will be judged for what I do in the playoffs,’ ’’ Rivers said. “I didn’t want him to take that literally throughout the season. But he’s been terrific. He’s a knowledgeable big who has a lot of game. I thought today defensively he did some old tricks that were just terrific.’’

Wallace spent the regular season going at his own pace, metaphorically — and literally on occasion — sitting back and sipping a Bud Light as the Celtics operated in turmoil and inconsistency. While his teammates attempted to convince themselves that they would reinvent themselves in the postseason, Wallace truly believed it. And maybe that makes the mercurial Wallace smarter than all of us.

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com.

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