- The Washington Times - Friday, May 10, 2002

Antoine Walker had heard a lot of different suggestions most of them negative from former Boston Celtics coach Rick Pitino on how his game should evolve. By the summer of 1999, when Pitino suggested the 6-foot-9 Walker should hit the weights and fashion his game after that of Utah Jazz forward Karl Malone, Walker had had enough.

"Karl is a great player headed to the Hall of Fame, but my game, my style of play is nothing like his," Walked recalled. "That would have never worked."

That wasn't Pitino's only grand idea that never worked. He also tried to implement the kind of smothering, pressing style of defense he had used at Kentucky, but it never paid dividends in the NBA.

Fortunately for the Celtics, the flamboyant, high-profile Pitino (102-146 with Boston) stepped down midway through the 2000-01 season after the team started 12-22, well on its way to an eighth consecutive losing season.

Into his place as interim coach stepped low-key Jim O'Brien, a man from working-class Philadelphia who loathed the spotlight but loved coaching. Under O'Brien, the Celtics went 24-24 the rest of the season.

O'Brien's quiet professionalism plus the endorsements of the team's two stars, Walker and forward Paul Pierce helped get the interim tag removed, and the Celtics couldn't be happier.

Boston won 49 games this season, the third-highest win total in the Eastern Conference. More importantly, O'Brien led the Celtics to the playoffs for the first time since they were bounced by Orlando in the first round in 1995.

Tonight the Celtics will try to go up 2-1 in their best-of-7, second-round series against higher-seeded Detroit.

Pierce and Walker clearly have stepped up their games both were named All-Stars this season but ask what is at the core of the Celtics' resurgence and they will say O'Brien.

When Pierce found out that O'Brien had finished sixth in the balloting for Coach of the Year honors, he was stunned. Detroit's Rick Carlisle won the award.

"I don't understand that," Pierce said. "I thought he was one of the top three coaches in all of basketball. You know, he really hasn't gotten the recognition he deserved for turning the Boston Celtics around. I really don't understand the criteria. I don't know what they base it on, but he should have been high up there."

O'Brien's own reaction: "It's irrelevant."

San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich has his hands full with the Los Angeles Lakers in the playoffs, but he has kept an eye on O'Brien and the Celtics.

"Jim O'Brien has done a better job with his team than I have done with mine," said Popovich, who coached the Spurs to 58 victories. "They're not just improved. It's ridiculous the steps they have taken. He's done a [great] job with that team."

Maybe more than anything else, the manner in which O'Brien handles his players when they are at their lowest point has resulted in their responding to him so well.

When Walker's grandmother died in Chicago, O'Brien attended the funeral. When Walker was hospitalized after getting stabbed on a Boston street, O'Brien was one of the first ones at the hospital.

"Those things are bigger than basketball," Walker said. "Those are the things that you will remember when you're finished playing the game and you're talking to your grandchildren."

He also has resuscitated the career of point guard Kenny Anderson.

The No.2 overall pick by New Jersey in 1991, Anderson was in Pitino's doghouse constantly. Last season Anderson broke his jaw and never got in shape. In 33 games, he averaged 7.5 points and 4.1 assists.

In a closed-door meeting with Anderson last summer, O'Brien promised that if he showed up in great shape, he'd have the time of his life playing basketball.

Although Anderson has not said whether he has had the time of his life, he did average 9.6 points and 5.3 assists. In the two games against Detroit, Anderson has averaged 14 points.

"He told me he still had confidence in me," Anderson said. "He told me that he needed me to run the team and be effective. He gave me a lot of confidence, and I was ready to perform for him by any means."

In addition, O'Brien has the Celtics doing what Pitino promised but never delivered playing defense. Last season Boston's opponents made 46 percent of their field goals and averaged 97 points. This season the figures were 42 percent and 94 points.

"We'll only go as far as we can go if we play defense," O'Brien said. "These guys have done that all year. They've done everything I've asked them to do."

Two more victories and the Celtics will be in the Eastern Conference finals a level they haven't reached since the Pistons eliminated them there in 1988.

"Picture that," Pierce said. "Picture that."


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