|ESPN.com: BlogsColumns||[Print without images]|
BOSTON -- Celtics coach Doc Rivers doesn't know how Delonte West managed to keep it a secret, but he's convinced West has been participating in an area rec league during his recovery from a sprained right ankle.
How else to explain West's precision timing in Wednesday's 92-80 triumph over the Indiana Pacers, only his ninth appearance of the season and his first game back after a nearly three-week absence.
|Delonte West did a little of everything in his first game back from an ankle injury that sidelined him for more than two weeks.|
West finished with a quiet stat line: Two points, three assists, two rebounds, one steal and one block. But it was how he amassed those totals over 16:31 that spoke volumes.
One-handed, flat-footed skip passes for easy jumpers; sidearmed zip feeds to cutters through traffic; one very loud left-handed block at the rim. Those are the types of plays that guards who have been on the sidelines for 57 games have no business making.
"He's been playing somewhere," Rivers said, "because his rhythm was too good. He's been in a rec league or something. I was amazed how well he handled the ball. Usually when you miss games at the guard position, you have the fumbles and you make bad decisions.
"He had great timing the entire night."
The first three quarters of Wednesday's game were largely unremarkable for West. He got a nice hand from the Garden faithful when he checked in for the first time with 32 seconds to play in the first quarter, then promptly turned the ball over. He played 6:15 in the second quarter, aiding a Celtics rally to take the lead, but registered nothing more than a personal foul on the stat sheet. He didn't see the floor in third quarter.
But West made the most of the 9:44 he played in the fourth frame (even if it started with a Kendrick Perkins-like illegal screen for another turnover).
West produced his first and only basket of the night with 9:57 remaining on an 11-foot turnaround jumper with a degree of difficulty of about 11 based on an evaporated shot clock and a draped defender.
Three minutes later, after Ray Allen drew attention slashing into the lane, West caught a kick-out pass to the perimeter with his left hand and, in one motion, threw a Tom Brady (errr, Steve Young?)-like bullet to Troy Murphy, who canned a 22-foot jumper.
Had West thrown the pass with his right hand it might have rebroken the right wrist that forced him to miss 39 games this season. There was that much torque behind the pass.
West grabbed a couple of boards, dished out a couple more assists and picked off a bad pass by Darren Collision. But the play that had everyone sending the "Welcome Back!" balloons to the rafters was an emphatic left-handed swat of a Paul George layup attempt on help defense.
It's the type of play that no player with such limited court time can expect to make. But there was West, timing the rejection perfectly.
"Oh man, I have fresh legs still from the summertime," West said. "I've just been sitting around waiting for my opportunity to get out there.
"I've got a great group of guys here who keep me a part of this team, keep me on the in-loop. I'm still there, I just haven't been able to get out there and contribute. Tonight is Day 1 on the road to the championship for me."
Perhaps West exceeded expectations because he's been so desperate to get back on the floor. First there was the season-opening 10-game suspension because of his legal troubles off the court. In his fifth game back, West crashed hard to the floor after a layup against the New Jersey Nets, fracturing his right wrist and sitting out the next three months.
West finally returned following the All-Star break and, after three games, suffered the sprained right ankle while stepping on a coach's foot during non-contact skeleton drills in an informal workout with Boston's trade acquisitions on Feb. 27.
It was supposed to be a minor setback. An MRI revealed he chipped a bone, which caused swelling that sidelined him for eight games before Wednesday's return.
Now he's focused on making up for lost time.
"My goal between now and the playoffs is just gaining the trust of my teammates and the coaching staff," West said. "Just be out there with them, get my timing right. That's my goal right now -- have this team have confidence in me going into the playoffs."
Playing like he's never missed a game will do that.
"The addition of Delonte really gave [the second unit] some real good vibes," captain Paul Pierce said. "He's such a poised player. Even though he has been out for so long, you can just see how he kind of smooths out the second unit. Especially with his passing, his defense and his hustle."
Somewhere in Boston, a rec league team is weeping while trying to figure out how to replace those elements now that West is back on the NBA stage.
Chris Forsberg covers the Celtics for ESPNBoston.com.