The two-hour practice was over and there was Rasheed Wallace, still on the court, working on his shot. The only other Celtic still around was Eddie House, another veteran survivor. They were working their way around the 3-point arc as Clifford Ray, the invaluable Celtics assistant, provided the token hand in their faces as they took jump shot after jump shot.
The scene was strangely fitting because the public topic du jour around the Celtics was the number of 3-pointers the C's have been launching collectively, and specifically the number of 3’s Wallace has taken so far.
To review: The Celtics have shot a little more than 19 3-pointers per game, which ranks them a little bit higher than league average, and Wallace has taken two-thirds of his shots from beyond the arc. Part of this is the rest of the general public catching up to what has been an emerging NBA trend for the last few seasons and part of it is what happens when you miss 10 in a row, as Wallace has done the last two games.
But this is really nothing new for Wallace, who has morphed during the course of his 15-year career from your standard low-post monster into someone who basically lives at the 3-point line. Wallace took almost 40 percent of his shots from beyond the arc last season, and while 67 percent is a tad excessive, it’s essentially who he is at this point.
"I have no problem with it," Rivers said. "We’re 7-1 and Rasheed is a big reason for that. Even when he misses, he’s taking a [center] and making them stand out by the 3-point line when Paul [Pierce] and Ray [Allen] are working down low, or Kevin [Garnett] or [Kendrick Perkins] or someone else. Obviously, we want to keep mixing it up and get him on the post and get Kevin on the post. His shooting is a big factor for us."
A few minutes later someone asked Rivers about it again and he responded: “I know this is a big deal all of a sudden here about 3-point attempts. I’m not upset at all. I like what we’re doing. We’re causing teams miserable problems because we’re spreading the floor.”
So ’Sheed kept shooting, because at 35 years of age he has found a way to make himself valuable to a team that is trying to win a championship.
At that moment it was hard not to think of another veteran, Allen Iverson, who has reportedly left the Grizzlies and has no place to practice — not that practice was ever particularly high on Iverson’s list of priorities.
Watching Wallace shoot, one couldn’t help but think that if only Iverson would accept the reality that he can’t be a franchise player anymore, he could be somewhere such as Boston instead of Memphis. If he would only accept a role as a creator of instant offense off the bench for a contender, he too could be enjoying the last few years of his career living the good life with other veteran pros and an understanding grown man’s coach like Rivers, instead of being trapped on Beale Street fighting for shots and minutes with young bucks such as Rudy Gay and O.J. Mayo and testing the untested Lionel Hollins.
“I already accepted that I can’t jump no more,” Wallace said after he was done getting up extra shots. “I’m not as fast as I used to be. I accepted that already. That’s where you become smarter. I make that first step before they get there, or to make that jump shot you give a little pump fake because I know he can jump higher than me. Once you lose that step or two, that’s where you pick up a step or two with your head.”
While Wallace has gracefully accepted his fate, Iverson continues to wage his one-man crusade against the dying of the light. The press surely will cannibalize Iverson for failing to come to grips with his own basketball mortality, just as the media is sure to lionize Sheed if he can help the Celtics win a championship by becoming one of the best role players in the league.
It’s not entirely fair that the last thing we’ll remember about Wallace and Iverson is how they did or didn’t adapt to becoming role players, but that’s the way it works.
Below the surface, ’Sheed and A.I. have much in common. They both share a connection to Philadelphia, the city that raised Wallace as a child and nurtured a young A.I. as a man. They both played for Larry Brown and endured complex relationships with one of the game’s best teachers and most eccentric personalities.
They came into the league in the mid-’90s and set basketball convention on its ear. Indomitable personalities, both combative and defensive, they were each held up at various times as everything that was wrong with their generation of NBA player, and they were just as beloved in other quarters for their no-nonsense approach.
Just think of the notable quotes each has served up over the years that have helped define their eras:
“Ball don’t lie,” Sheed once said, meaning that the game revealed all after the smoke and mirrors of the NBA circus had cleared.
“I play every game like it’s my last,” Iverson said on numerous occasions as if that justified everything else, and for a time it did.
Strip away their images, and their games are just as polarizing, and revolutionary. Wallace helped take the big man out of the post and out to the perimeter, while Iverson took the little man’s game inside among the giants, adding spark and sizzle to a league that had become predictable and stale.
Jump shooting big men are in vogue throughout the NBA, just as penetrating guards have made use of the hand-check rules to carve their way through defenses. Wallace and Iverson were two of the pioneers in that shift.
But Wallace had something of an advantage that Iverson frankly never had. He was grounded in reality, first by legendary Philadelphia high school coach Bill Ellerbee at Simon Gratz, and then by Dean Smith at North Carolina.
Wallace came off the bench for both teams early in his career, while Iverson was handed the keys to the car at Georgetown, and later with the Sixers, and simply asked to keep it under 75 mph, which he sometimes did.
“One thing my high school coach told me is, the day you stop learning about the game of basketball is the day you hang it up,” Wallace said. “With me coming off the bench, it’s an adjustment for me, having started for the last 13, 14 years. It’s an adjustment, but it’s one that I’ve made before in my career. With Carolina, I didn’t start there right away. And in high school.”
Where Wallace has adapted and evolved over the course of his career, and been especially responsive to coaching, Iverson knows only one way to play and he has relied on it, and himself, to make his name. Coming off the bench is simply anathema to him.
“Sometimes, depending on the mentality of that person it can be an advantage or a disadvantage,” Wallace said. “The advantage is, you’re not starting. You’re sitting back looking at the game, and you see we need rebounding, or I see we need hustle points or whatever. When you come off the bench, that’s what you go in there and try to do. The disadvantage is you got to catch that flow. Coming off the bench you’ve got to come in that game warm already. If you don’t that’s when bad things happen.
“It’s the mentality of that player. Some can, some can’t.”
It seems fairly obvious that Iverson can’t, or won’t, make that adjustment. The reality is that this might be his final chance. Teams weren’t exactly beating a path down to Hampton Roads to sign him this summer, and if he walks away from the Grizzlies now, what contending team would risk blowing up its chemistry to find out if he ever will?
Wallace, meanwhile, had no shortage of suitors because even in his heyday he never let anyone define him by the number of points he scored or the number of shots he took.
Not that they didn’t try. How many times did Wallace hear during his career that he could be the best player in the league if only he was more aggressive? If only he could have been a little more like, well, like Allen Iverson.
Wallace was asked about Iverson on Monday, but he didn’t really want to offer an opinion. Things are happening too fast and he wanted to know more before saying something for the record. But you could tell the empathy that Wallace has for Iverson.
“I’m sure it’s hard on him,” he said.
Their careers have mirrored each other for the last decade and a half, but right now Rasheed Wallace and Allen Iverson couldn’t be further away from one another.