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Wallace is producing in playoffs

By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / June 2, 2010

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LOS ANGELES — There’s the part of Rasheed Wallace that’s unapologetically transparent.

The frosty postgame beers sitting in his locker. The Flyers cap in the Bruins city. The unstrapped, unorthodox Air Force 1 sneakers he has worn for 11 straight years, unless you count those six minutes in the first half of Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals when he went without them. (Why? “No story,’’ Wallace said. “I just left them at home.’’)

He is who he is.

“There’s no hidden meaning or underlying philosophies with him,’’ Celtics teammate Ray Allen said. “He’s just straightforward. Always.’’

The question as Wallace’s frustrating regular season played out was whether he was the player the Celtics thought he was when they signed him to a three-year deal last summer.

Was he the team-first player that became a championship-belt-carrying fan favorite in Detroit? Was he the referees’ worst nightmare whose follow-up to a 40-technical foul season in 2000 was 41 the next year? Was he the whip-smart basketball savant or the surly aging veteran?

In truth, he was all of the above. But he was brought to Boston to help the Celtics return to the Finals. The Celtics were able to get there because the Wallace they’ve gotten in the playoffs has been the Wallace they expected.

“Regardless of what Rasheed did for us numbers-wise, we felt like we needed his ability,’’ said Paul Pierce. “His size, his defense, his experience, those are things we wanted from Rasheed. We didn’t ask Rasheed to come in here and start, to average a certain number of points. We needed his presence.’’

Wallace’s postseason impact isn’t measured by numbers (6.5 points, 2.3 rebounds in 17 games) but in moments. The out-of-nowhere 17-point outburst against the Cavaliers in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals where he made his first six shots and was stomping mad when his seventh went long off the back iron. The 21-point “go down shooting’’ night in a loss to the Magic in Game 5 of the Eastern finals. He has provided a lift off the bench along with Glen Davis and Tony Allen.

Kevin Garnett has been credited with “slapping’’ — Garnett’s word — the life into Wallace in these playoffs, sitting down with him before his breakout game in Cleveland.

“Sheed and I, we’re just straight up with each other,’’ said Garnett. “A lot of time we probably don’t want to hear what the other one has to say but we respect it. We’ve played countless games against each other. I think the fact that we’ve been playing together this year — matter of fact, I know — we just embraced it.’’

There’s a network of players and coaches around the league that will vouch for Wallace, from Chauncey Billups to Larry Brown. Brown, his former coach in Detroit, once called Wallace “the most misunderstood guy in the league.’’

Maybe.

“Some of the stuff is not misunderstood,’’ said Doc Rivers, who in his first year as Wallace’s coach has seen him turn into a fire-breathing dragon in a late-season explosion during a loss to Cleveland. “When he yells at the refs, that’s pretty clear. I don’t think that’s hard to understand.’’

His battles with refs aren’t always matters of officials not understanding him, but simply not listening. Picture the elementary school kid that questions the teacher about everything — whether it’s the square root of pi or two plus two. Now, picture that teacher ultimately tuning that kid out. Rasheed Wallace is that kid. Game officials are those teachers. Technical fouls are the closest thing they have to the principal’s office. (Wallace has four technicals this postseason.)

The connection most people have a hard time making is the one between Wallace’s volatile image on the court and the countless stories of how endearing he is off of it.

Loud and witty, he’s a magnet in the locker room. Teammates drift to him. He doesn’t let the bonds break.

In March, the Celtics were in Detroit, where Wallace won his only championship. Tayshaun Prince, haunted by injuries all season, went down in the first quarter grabbing his back. He was helped off the floor, limping to the Pistons bench.

Wallace and Prince were friends and former teammates, but Wallace didn’t cross enemy lines. At least not blatantly. Wallace drifted out of the Celtics’ huddle slightly, grabbing the towel wrapped around his neck and peering over to the Pistons bench, nodding until he got Prince’s attention. He discreetly flashed the “OK’’ sign with his fingers, asking Prince if he was all right. Prince nodded. Wallace nodded back. And with that, the Celtics handed the Pistons a 119-93 loss, Wallace going for 8 points and 4 rebounds.

Last Friday, as the Celtics celebrated their Eastern Conference championship, Wallace walked slowly back to the floor to join the fray, in practice shorts, flip flops and a T-shirt. Back trouble had ended his night early. Standing next to him was his son.

“He’s a better person and he’s a great teammate, and I don’t think a lot of guys see that in him,’’ Rivers said. “But everywhere you go, everywhere he’s played, that’s what they tell you. I don’t think you can get that sense until you coach him.’’

When the Celtics struggled, Rivers often gave the same line.

“It doesn’t matter what I do in the regular season,’’ he said. “I’ll be judged on what I do in the playoffs.’’

It was almost like he was talking directly to Wallace at the same time.

Seeing how it’s worked out, Rivers joked, “I didn’t want him to take that literally.’’

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