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NBA Finals | Game 5

Baby steps

Moving forward after a rocky start, Davis has grown a lot this season

By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / June 13, 2010

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It was in the air, even if it had gone unspoken all morning. The awkward concoction of confusion and frustration wafted through the Celtics’ practice facility two days before they were to start a season that had championship expectations. None of the players said anything, but they had all heard.

Glen Davis had been in a fight with his best friend outside his home in Waltham, breaking his right thumb, and before the season had started, the Celtics found out they were going to be missing a key reserve for about eight weeks.

Rajon Rondo, an emerging star but at 24 years old also a peer to Davis, didn’t hesitate to pick up the phone, and couldn’t mask his disappointment.

“I called him and told him a couple things I can’t say on camera right now,’’ Rondo said. “I was very angry at Baby. I can only speak for myself, but I was [ticked] off. He knew I was very angry with him.’’

The reaction was natural. After feeling the same way initially, Celtics coach Doc Rivers looked at Davis the way a parent would a son. He was upset, but he moved forward, knowing that what was more important was showing Davis why everyone was upset and also why it was so important that he mature.

“I know he wanted to,’’ Rivers said. “One thing I kept saying, he’s not a bad kid. And so that always gave you hope that he would.’’

The incident seems like ages ago now, with the Celtics tied with the Lakers going into Game 5 of the NBA Finals tonight at TD Garden. Davis missed the first 27 games of the season, and when he returned, he wasn’t put back in the rotation. But over the course of the season, he gradually accepted his role, embracing the idea of being an energy player, living to take charges and gobble up offensive rebounds, and in the process emerging as one of the Celtics’ most reliable role players.

Davis said the fallout from one fight made him realize how far he was from being the man and the player he wanted to be. Throughout the season, it served as a reminder.

“I was disappointed,’’ Davis said. “But things happen. Sometimes you’ve got to make split decisions and sometimes you might not make the right decision. I was disappointed I let my team down and couldn’t help them out. It feels good to know that you can help your team, to know that you’re a big part of the team.’’

Davis has at different points been described as spontaneous and emotional, immature yet hard-working, perceptive and at the same time aloof. His sensitivity is on record. He was caught on camera two years ago crying as Kevin Garnett tore into the bench for blowing a lead, and he wasn’t ashamed of the emotions. He was fined $25,000 in January for responding to a heckling fan in Detroit by shouting an obscenity.

He is innocently self-absorbed, changing nicknames three times this season, and meticulously self-aware, cursing at himself for making mistakes on the floor. Still child-like in a way, he blends in well with children at the Celtics’ community service events by relating to them on their level. Still searching for a sense of full-formed manhood, he is now expecting a child of his own.

“He’s matured more than anything, and he’s still maturing,’’ Rivers said. “He still has a ways to go. But I think he’s becoming more comfortable in his own skin. He accepts who he is. The incident that happened at the beginning of the year was not the best thing for him or our team, and I wouldn’t want it to happen to any other player.

“But in some ways, it may have helped him understand that he had to mature now. I think he also understood that the team was not going to wait for him. We were going to move on. And when he came back, he didn’t immediately play, and I thought that all that probably in some way helped him.’’

People assume maturity is somehow microwaveable, that in the nine months since the fight, Davis has grown into that man he said he wanted to become.

Has he learned? Yes. Has he changed? As much as anyone could in nine months.

“I’m sure he probably wouldn’t make that mistake again,’’ Rondo said. “But he’s still Big Baby.’’

Over the past two days, Davis’s ego has been constantly stroked. His ultra-intense fourth-quarter run was cycled on every highlight show. He was a trending topic on Twitter. His drool was on the cover of newspapers. “Primal scream’’ became buzz words. The sports world took Nate Robinson’s “Shrek and Donkey’’ tag and ran wild with it.

Yesterday, Davis was still having some fun with it all, at one point bouncing around the idea of a real-life “Shrek’’ movie with Davis starring. He grinned and joked. Admittedly, the limelight is sort of a guilty pleasure for Davis, but he understands how fleeting the attention is. The day after he hit a winning buzzer-beater in Orlando in last year’s playoffs, the story line became Davis pushing a young boy as he celebrated his shot. More than that, though, the Celtics lost that series, stripping the shot of the value it would have held had they won.

“It’s all fun and games,’’ he said. “We’ve got a three-game series now. [Thursday’s] game is over with. It doesn’t exist now. People will remember it if we win it. People won’t remember it if we lose. We’ve still got to win this series.’’

That’s one of the last corners Rivers has been waiting to see Davis turn. The joke whenever Davis had a big performance during the season was that he wanted a parade afterward. Praise rained down on him in the first round when he scored 23 points against the Heat starting in place of a suspended Garnett. Rivers was the first to try to check Davis’s ego. Milli Vanilli had one huge hit, too, Rivers told Davis.

“One of my focal points is being consistent,’’ Davis said. “One of the things I’ve been trying to learn how to do is try to be effective every game. Last game was just one of the games that I played well. Hopefully, next game I can do the same thing.’’

But the hype and attention surrounding the Finals has a way of being more intoxicating.

“Honestly, he has to turn a corner tomorrow,’’ Rivers said. “Can you have a big game and then can you have another one? Are you going to be a one-hit wonder? What is it going to be?’’

Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.

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