PORTLAND, ME - It's been many a day since Antoine Walker last shimmied on the legendary parquet at the Boston Garden, but the three-time All-Star did step onto an NBA D-League court in the New England area on Thursday night.
Walker, who is attempting a comeback with the Idaho Stampede of the NBA D-League, scored a game-high 25 points in Idaho's 105-99 loss to the Maine Red Claws, the NBA affiliate of Boston and Charlotte, at the Portland Expo Center.
"I'm getting better and better," said Walker. "It's my fourth game (back). I feel like tonight I got better, finished a lot better around the rim. There are still small things that I want to be able to do that I feel like, as you continue to play, you get in better shape."
Walker, who started for the first time against Maine, was 11-for-20 from the field and 2-for-6 from three-point range. In addition, Walker grabbed eight rebounds and had one steal in 33 minutes.
"He played well," said Idaho coach Randy Livingston. "I thought he was excited and energized early in the game."
Walker's first shot attempt was a 12-foot jump shot that he missed with 10:53 left in the first quarter. With 8:36 remaining in the period, Walker drove to the basket, made the layup and got fouled. After that, Walker went on to score six more points in the first quarter and six in the second to finish the first half with a game-high 14 points.
"Our game plan was to try and bother him, change up the defenders and make him take shots from the outside" said Maine head coach Austin Ainge, who is the son of Celtics general manager Danny Ainge. "He's clever, he's big and he's got good foot work."
He didn't play much in the third quarter, but made his first of two three-pointers with 10:13 left in the period to cut Maine's lead to 63-54. Walker was subbed out with 4:53 left and did not re-enter the game until the 5:53 mark of the fourth quarter.
Walker had a chance to be the hero with 27.3 second left when he attempted a 35-foot three pointer that would have tied the game at 100. Unfortunately, the shot missed, and the Stampede were forced to foul on the next possesion.
Despite his miss, Walker had another chance to get his team back in the game with 15.8 seconds left and Idaho down 103-99. Walker drove towards the basket, but lost control of the ball and turned it over to Maine's Mario West.
"I hate that turnover at the end of the game," Walker said. "We were down four and I was driving to the basket. Little things like that, you want to be sharp, and I'm not as sharp as I like to be. But I also have to understand that I've only been playing for four games, so I'm going to be smart in the process of getting back."
Even though Walker led the game in scoring, his performance in his first D-League start was no where near consistent. Throughout the first half, Walker walked up the court during many of his team's possessions, while the play was already developing.
Some of that may be attributed to the fact that Walker is only four games into his comeback. With that in mind, Walker takes advantage of the team's off days.
"The off days are huge for me," the 34-year-old Walker said. "Making sure I get good work in, continuing to work on my game, good repetition. Everyday is huge for me. There's not really a day off for me right now, just because the other guys have been playing for two months, and not the fact that I haven't been working out. They've been playing for two months, and they're in basketball shape."
Nevertheless, Walker has felt significantly better with every passing day.
"It's coming, I feel better and better," Walker said. "My body's responding better. I can feel it coming day by day. Hopefully, I can continue to build off this game."
To his credit, Walker did work hard under the basket all game long, taking advantage of defenders at will. "He just tricked our guys four or five times," Ainge said. "He's never been a super athlete, but he's got all the moves."
It's safe to say that the fans in Maine haven't forgotten Walker's days with the Celtics. Before the game, the sellout-crowd of 3,045 gave Walker a standing ovation, and many fans cheered for him throughout the night.
Nonetheless, it's a big change playing in front of 3,000 fans as opposed to anywhere from ten to twenty thousand in the NBA. That might bother some athletes, but not Walker.
"I look at it as basketball," Walker said. "My love for the game is tremendous. This is what I've done for the last 20 year of my life. The crowd doesn't bother me. I know some arenas are not going to be the same, and they're going to be some nights where there are only a couple hundred people watching. I'm prepared for that."
That being said, Walker was appreciative of the warm welcome he received back in New England.
"This is great," said Walker. "This is home for me. Even though I won a championship in Miami, Boston drafted me as a rookie and embraced me. The eight years I spent up here were tremendous. I have great friends that I have up here. I'm always going to root for the Celtics. The reception I got tonight was heartfelt, it makes you really want to work hard to get back to that level."
Walker had a storied career in Boston, helping to start a new era in Celtics basketball. In his 12-year NBA career, Walker averaged 17.5 points and 7.7 rebounds.
While the point of playing in the D-League is to ultimately get a contract offer from an NBA general manager, winning games is still very important to Walker.
"We're trying to win, too," Walker said. "We've been working hard since I got here. This is [Idaho head coach] Randy [Livingston's] first year, and we want to play hard. We're better than our 2-8 record indicates."
As far as a timeline for a return to the Association, Walker isn't eying any specific date. Instead, Walker is looking at his comeback bid as a longterm process.
"I just come and play," Walker said. "I'm just kind of listening to Randy, he's been in the D-League, he knows it and has done plenty of call-ups, so I'm just trying to follow his lead, his advice."
Still, Walker realizes that getting an invite back to basketball's highest stage isn't entirely in his control.
"I think for me to get back, when that time comes, there's going to have to be an opportunity, too," said Walker. "I think there's going to have to be a team that needs somebody like me, a guy 6' 9" that can stress defense and go inside and outside. It all depends, that may not come up."
But if that opportunity does present itself, it would be a dream come true for Walker. What would make it even more amazing was if that opportunity came from Celtics general manager Danny Ainge.
"That's always great," Walker said. "You see the love Allen Iverson got last year, just going back to a team that he's helped the franchise. That's always great. I think this Celtics team is pretty set. I think they have some great bigs. The team they built is built to win the East and play for a championship."
Even if that opportunity never comes, Walker will still look at his experience in the D-League favorably.
"I'm having a lot of fun playing," Walker said. "Like tonight, even though we lost, just competing and having a good close game. I love that."