October 12, 1997
This is not pickup basketball. There are not many NBA teams that play games in northern Alabama and State College, Pa., as the Celtics and Hawks did the last two nights. But it still is not the same as participating in a spontaneous game with four people you've never met, everyone playing as if he were an independent contractor. It's not like that in the pros. Well, not exactly.
The Celtics make a little more money than your average pickup players. And if you happened to choose one of them during games on your neighborhood court, chances are you wouldn't have to walk off the asphalt for a very long time.
Yet the Celtics are similar to an on-the-spot team because they truly do not know each other. You watched them in two games against the Hawks this weekend, right? You thought they looked sloppy and confused and rusty, right? Good. Everyone agrees with you.
"We all wanted to get out there and just see what it was like to play together," forward Chris Mills said. That was the exciting part. On Friday night, they waited in a corridor of Penn State's Bryce Jordan Center as a public address announcer prepared to introduce them. Mills smiled at his new teammates and said, "All right, y'all; let's do this." And they took the court. That was one of the few signs of order.
There were signs of brilliance. Antoine Walker starred as himself ("I absolutely love the way he plays," Rick Pitino said). Travis Knight was active, not physical ("People talk about the money we paid him," the coach said, "we think he is worth every penny; I already think it's a steal"). Dee Brown and Pervis Ellison were pressing, in the figurative sense, on Friday. Tyus Edney was fast. Chauncey Billups and Ron Mercer had their rookie moments.
"They have no idea what they're doing," Pitino said of his team, which lost to Atlanta, 113-89. He smiled as he said it. He knew the Hawks' unofficial logo could have been a silhouetted player slamming the ball through the hoop, with a beleaguered Celtic looking up at him. In some cases it was worse than that: no Celtic at all in the area.
It wasn't as bad last night in Huntsville, mostly because of the efforts of Walker. The second-year forward had 32 points, threw a perfect alley-oop pass that Knight converted into a dunk, and excited the sellout crowd of more than 7,000 at the Von Braun Center.
Another positive for Boston was the performance of Ellison. His numbers weren't great, but he played with a purpose and used his fouls.
The Celtics lost to the Hawks for the second straight night, 100-91, but the score of an early exhibition game isn't what's important. The important matters for the Celtics were poor ball handling and shooting. They continue to play like the team they are: a group of guys in training camp who aren't familiar with one another.
"They're not supposed to know what they're doing," Pitino explained after Friday's game. "Now, when you see their execution match their effort - and I liked their effort - it's going to be a thing of beauty for a lot of basketball fans. To be honest with you, I thought they would be a lot worse."
You have to possess a boundless imagination for that. The Celtics were shaky, especially on Friday in Penn State Country. Easy basket, followed by easy basket, followed by easy basket. This wasn't supposed to happen against the Pitino press. Except for one small detail: The Celtics don't know the press, either.
"Sometimes they make steals off it, sure," Pitino said. "But they have no idea about the proper angles on the press. Even Ron Mercer, who I coached, was not utilizing the proper angles. He must have been weighed down by the money."
Pitino laughed again. Maybe you're wondering why the man laughed. Weren't the Celtics supposed to be practicing all this new stuff in Newport, R.I., the last two weeks? Nope. What the Celtics did, mostly, was run.
"We wanted to get them in shape so they wouldn't get hurt," Pitino said. "Now we're going to try and really spend an hour on two sets, really spend the time teaching the offenses and defenses."
He said the team will practice his system's subtleties tomorrow and Tuesday. They go to Lexington, Ky., for what promises to be a homecoming-type game for Pitino (it was scheduled long before he was under consideration for the Celtics job). By that time, Pitino said, he expects the Celtics to look much better than they did Friday and last night.
It will help that they will be playing the Nets. Part of the problem against the Hawks is that they have three good ballhandlers in Mookie Blaylock, Steve Smith, and Christian Laettner. None is going to panic under pressure. In the next several games, Celtics coaches will check to see whether there is a proper press rotation. The fact that there is no such thing bothers no one. For now.