Thursday, September 30, 2010 Updated: October 1, 2:27 PM ET
Celtics camp balances work, play
By Chris Forsberg ESPNBoston.com
NEWPORT, R.I. -- Another two-hour practice session behind him, Boston Celtics forward Kevin Garnett was lounging on the sidelines watching some of the younger players on the court scrimmage four-on-four when Nate Robinson scurried over in need of a cameraman.
Robinson thrust his iPhone into Garnett's hands, pressed record, and thus began the latest segment in Robinson's Twitter-based sketch comedy series featuring Shaquille O'Neal.
Over the span of 24 hours, Robinson posted videos that ranged from him slipping O'Neal some salt-infused water during a team meal, to dunking on an unsuspecting O'Neal at the start of a practice.
After Thursday's session, videos shot included a mock stare-down between O'Neal and Kendrick Perkins (which ended with the two "playoff rivals" dancing); Robinson running a clumsy suicide in O'Neal's size 23 shoes; and a sequence in which KG and O'Neal rough up Robinson, beating him with one of Shaq's oversized shoes at one point.
Nate Robinson and Shaq have made camp entertaining thus far, and sharing it on Twitter.
If Twitter was your only glimpse into Boston's training camp, it would be enough to make you wonder if this team ever focuses on basketball. Truth is, the Celtics are working twice as hard as they're playing, and all the ancillary antics are helping to forge a bond that this team came to Newport specifically in search of.
"Chemistry's been very good, needless to say," a smiling Garnett said, after being quizzed on his directorial debut. "It's a *** zoo around here, but it's all good, we're getting some work done."
Call it the Big Three ring circus, as there's no lack of shenanigans around the Rodgers Recreation Center on the campus of Salve Regina University. But coach Doc Rivers notes that once this team hits the floor, it's all business, particularly for ringleader Robinson.
"I think Nate has figured it out, so far, that there's a time to be focused and serious, and there's time to be Nate," said Rivers. "He's done a great job of that. During practice, he's dead serious; during water breaks, he turns back into Nate. He's figured that out, though.
"Last year, he didn't get that for a long time, that's why he didn't play for a long time. But I thought our playoff run was more important for him as a player, for the rest of his life really, than any single player I've coached in a long time."
Robinson came to Boston at February's trade deadline in a five-player swap that sent Eddie House, J.R. Giddens and Bill Walker to the Knicks in exchange for the three-time slam dunk champion and rookie Marcus Landry.
It was a move that was met with much consternation from a close-knit Celtics squad that lost a core member of its 2008 championship squad in House. The fact that Robinson essentially fizzled after a brief honeymoon period didn't endear players to the move any more.
Fortunately for all parties, Robinson fought his way out Rivers' doghouse late in the playoff run and made himself a key member of the bench as Boston was a handful of minutes shy of topping the Lakers in the NBA Finals.
That gave the Celtics confidence to bring back Robinson -- utilizing their limited rights to re-sign him above the veteran's minimum, which is all they could have offered another free agent -- on a two-year, $8.7 million contract that includes incentives that could add money to the deal.
Robinson finds himself pegged as the top backup behind point guard Rajon Rondo and in charge of running a revamped second unit. Building off the end of last season, he's bought into the Celtics' system and is out to prove during camp that he's intent on being the best player he can be.
"I want to know everything about the offense, the defense and each guy on this team," said Robinson. "So I just try to focus on, when it's practice time, focus on practice; when we have breaks, we can clown around and do our things. Even when Doc is talking to the bigs, I gotta listen. It's something I'm improving on as I get more mature. I'm 26 years old now, I'm not getting any younger."
Robinson wants to shed the role as a gimmick, the 5-foot-9 guy who draws headlines each All-Star weekend because of his leaping ability in the slam dunk contest. No, he wants to be regarded as a key cog on a championship team.
For that, he needed to find himself as a player. He spent his first four-plus NBA seasons in New York, starring as an off-the-bench scorer, highlighted by a 2008-09 campaign in which he averaged 17.2 points, 4.1 assists and 3.9 rebounds per game in 74 appearances (63 off the pine).
After he clashed with the coaching staff in New York, his playing time and production dipped last season. Despite a new opportunity in Boston, he struggled to find his role, thinking the team wanted him to be a pass-first guard.
Just the opposite, Rivers stressed that Robinson needed to be a ball handler, but the Celtics wanted him to maintain that scoring punch the second unit often lacked. Conflicted, he averaged a mere 6.5 points, 2 assists and 1.5 rebounds over 26 appearances with the Celtics and, by regular season's end, had faded from the rotation.
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A 13-point outburst in Boston's Game 6 triumph over Orlando pushed him back into the mix for the NBA Finals. Noting that he has to "be himself" on the court this season, Robinson is hoping to put it all together with the aid of a full training camp with the Green.
"[Camp is giving me] confidence in knowing the plays and knowing exactly what Doc wants on the floor, running the second unit," said Robinson. "I think I'm doing a good job of getting better. I'm watching Rondo and how he controls the first unit. He doesn't even have to bring the ball up the court to call a play. That's where I'm trying to get to."
When work is done, Robinson is working just as hard at pleasure.
A constant presence on Twitter, he admits he's on at seemingly all hours because he usually takes a post-practice nap, then stays up through the night hours. He likes giving people on the outside a glimpse of camp and the fun this team is having.
After Thursday's session, his sprints in Shaq's shoes were performed right in front of Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge, who seemed to have no qualms about the horseplay, offering a friendly shove of Robinson as he talked to reporters about his antics a short time later.
"[Shaq's shoes] are heavier than bricks, way heavier," said Robinson. "They said 30 seconds [to run the suicide], but I don't think they were counting for real. I think that'd be a good punishment. Guys gotta run in Shaq shoes if you don't do something right."
Robinson joked that he could put on his own size 10 shoe and still step into Shaq's from there. The two players, also locker room neighbors back in Boston, have been the featured attraction of this Celtics circus during the preseason, and they revel in the role.
Because, at the end of the day, both want nothing more than to unite this team for a championship run.
"Shaq's a cool dude and this team is real fun," said Robinson. "We all love each other, we're all pulling for each other. The main thing about it is guys have great chemistry; lot of good characters on this team. We're just having fun."
Chris Forsberg covers the Celtics and Patriots for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.