Pitino's Celtics Cross .500 Barrier

February 28, 1999 
Celtics get over the top 
They beat Nets, are above .500

   EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - This time last week, Antoine Walker was a villain in Boston. Never mind that the name stitched on the front of his green-and-white jersey clearly read "Celtics."

Word was he was selfish, especially after arguing on the court with Kenny Anderson in Washington. Word was he was jealous of rookie forward Paul Pierce. Word was he needed to be traded. 

Somebody should have passed the word to the New Jersey Nets.

If you were willing to be a general manager for a day and wanted to trade Walker, you could make a call here and get any deal you wanted. The fans in Continental Airlines Arena last night would certainly take the Celtics' captain after they saw him and his teammates defeat the Nets, 101-92.

The Celtics are now 6-5, over .500 for the first time in a year. Walker helped them get there with 28 points, 11 rebounds, 4 assists, and 3 steals. He also got his voice going.

We're not just talking about the voice Keith Van Horn heard in his ear when Walker tried to distract him. And we're not talking about the voice the New Jersey bench heard when Walker made the game-breaking 3-pointer with 1:41 remaining, a shot that gave Boston a 91-82 lead. We're talking about the voice Rick Pitino heard in the huddle.

"Every timeout he would say, 'We are not losing this game. Don't get down if you make a mistake. Even in the fourth quarter,' " Pitino said of Walker. "I've coached him for a long time, but I've never seen him like this. He showed unbelievable leadership. He did it on the court, during timeouts. I laugh when people say he is not a good leader. I wish they could have seen this because this was textbook leadership."

The Celtics needed all the leadership and guidance anyone was willing to give. The Nets were playing before their first sellout crowd in six home games. That group of 20,049 got quite loud when John Calipari's win-starved team went ahead by 14 in the second quarter. It didn't look promising. But the Celtics lopped that lead to 3 by halftime, tied the game at 69 at the end of the third quarter, and then turned to Walker in the fourth.

You should know that the Celtics trailed, 80-79, with five minutes remaining. You should also know that Walker went to work with his partner, Pierce, in the next three minutes. They scored 12 consecutive points between them, culminating with Walker's only 3-pointer of the night.

After Walker made a jumper to put the Celtics up, 81-80, Pierce (21 points, 7 rebounds) responded with his only successful 3-pointer in six attempts.

"I think it says more about him that he took it," Pitino said.

Pierce came into the game shooting 46 percent from ThreeLand, so this was clearly his worst shooting night from behind the line. Was he discouraged?

"I'm telling you, I never get discouraged," he said. "I'll keep shooting it if the shot is open."

He did exactly that after Van Horn, who finished with 22 points, made a fadeaway. Pierce hit a shot from the corner. And then Walker dunked on a pass from Pierce. And then there was the 3, which led to New Jersey depression.

"We're not the only team with injuries," Nets center Jayson Williams said. "We're not the only team missing shots [ the Nets shot 36 percent] . But it seems we're the only team losing all these games down the stretch."

The Nets, picked by many to win the Atlantic Division, now anchor the bottom with a 2-10 record. There already are whispers about Calipari's job. Chris Gatling called the local fans "immature" after they booed parts of his 10-point, 17-minute performance.

But the Celtics aren't worried about that. They have won three games in a row, two without starting shooting guard Ron Mercer (ankle). They are on the verge of getting one of their best pressing men, Walter McCarty, back in the lineup. They also have Walker and Pierce.

"I think we're a nice combo," Pierce said. "Their bench was making a lot of noise at me when I was missing my shots early. So we had to come back and tell them something after we went ahead in the fourth."

The Nets went home thinking about those words. The Celtics left thinking about the winning words of Walker.

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