The lights were going down and the excitement in the Garden was building when PA announcer Ernie Palladino began to introduce, “The World Champion Boston Celtics.” Mikki Moore snuck up behind Stephon Marbury and shook him by the shoulders as if to say, “Can you believe we’re a part of this?”
For Moore, who was in something akin to exile in Sacramento, and Marbury who actually was in exile from the Knicks it must have felt like getting an upgrade from the old Howard Johnson’s in Kenmore Square to a room at the Collonade.
While Moore provides a burst of energy and more than a little bit of “length” all eyes were on Marbury in his Boston debut. He said all the right things in his pre-game press conference, channeling Crash Davis with various renditions of, “I’m just here to help the ballclub.”
If the first meeting with the press went well, Marbury’s introduction to the Boston faithful was like the Bosstones taking the stage at the Hometown Throwdown. His face was cheered on the Jumbotron and when he entered the game late in the first quarter he received the full rock-star treatment with a raucous standing ovation. “I didn’t know what to expect,” Marbury said. “I was hoping they would clap. There was a lot of love tonight.”
It’s all in place for Marbury to rejuvenate his career, his image and a good bit of of his self-respect. “I’ve made mistakes,” he said before the game. “I’ve learned from them.”
Lost in all of that is the fact that for a guy who hasn’t played in an NBA game in over a year he looked remarkably good. He showed his mid-range game and an ability to turn the corner and get to the basket. He was 4-for-6 from the field for eight points and two assists in 13 minutes. Oh, there were a few signs of rust–he had three turnovers, and while he is tremendous physical shape he is not in NBA shape yet, and probably won’t be for at least a few more weeks.
“Shooting the ball wasn’t the problem,” he said. “It was getting legs to get into the shot.”
“I was laughing with him at halftime, I said, ‘You looked like Jerry Quarry there,’” Doc Rivers said. “He had the boxer’s legs, you know.”
But as first impressions go it was pretty close to perfect for Marbury and the Celtics. He solves one immediate problem by being the capable ballhandler the bench has lacked for the better part of two seasons. Eddie House, who isn’t nearly as bad a a dribbler as people who make him out to be, but is not really suited to the task moves immediately to the off-guard position.
“I think it will help Eddie because it moves Eddie off the ball,” Rivers said. “In the grand scheme of things, I think it’ll help make Eddie a better player because now Eddie can become a shooter full time.”
What’s not clear, at least not yet, is how this affects Gabe Pruitt, who couldn’t have picked a worse time to get picked up on suspicion of DUI. Even before the incident, Pruitt was about to become the third and maybe even the fourth option. Pruitt who remains a work on progress may have seen his best chance to establish himself as a contributor this year go by the wayside.
The other thing Marbury does is potentially alleviate the load on Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. Rivers has been concerned about the veterans’ minutes–a concern that has only grown without Tony Allen and Brian Scalabrine to back them up. Pierce logged almost 40 minutes and Allen checked in with a whopping 43+ minutes, which is entirely too many. Rivers knows this, which is why he plans to incorporate House as a shooter off the bench to help spell Allen.
That solves one set of problems but could introduce another, as Marbury and House are not exactly “big” guards. In that construction, Marbury would probably draw the oppositions two guards, which is an additional adjustment he must make on the defensive end. “Defense,” Marbury said. “That’s the only thing they talk about is defense. The offense takes care of itself.”
How Marbury handles the defensive schemes will be as much a part of his success in Boston as the points, rebounds and assists, but you get the feeling that he is liberated by the change. “It’s not about who’s shooting the ball and who’s not shooting the ball,” Marbury said. “Ray had 30, I didn’t even know he had 30 points. I didn’t even know (Rajon) Rondo had 17 assists. Until I looked up at the board and saw that, I didn’t even know that.”
Ah, Rondo. When Sam Cassell arrived last year there was some angst over how his presence would affect Rondo. As it turned out, nobody really needed to have worried much. Rondo, as preternaturally calm and confident as they come, couldn’t have been bothered less by Cassell. This time there are no such questions, and his career-tying 17 assist effort only further proved the point.
This is Rondo’s team, but what Marbury brings is some direction to the bench which could frankly use some. “His whole career he’s had to be the franchise player,” Allen said. “Here he just has to run the second unit.”
Allen first met Marbury at a Nike camp a long, long time ago. Allen, the high school senior, remembers the ninth-grader with boundless energy bouncing off the bleachers. They came into the league together as part of the famed 1996 draft class when Marbury was taken one spot ahead of Allen by Milwaukee and then immediately traded for him. “I told him he still owes me 200 grand,” Allen joked; the difference between their two draft slots. “Our careers have definitely come full circle.”
For one night at least, this unusual, highly improbable chemistry experiment was a success. As Marbury finished answering questions in his locker, which is right next to his old Minnesota running mate Kevin Garnett, the smile never left his face. “Can you believe I’m a part of this?”