Key pickup for Celtics

MIKE KOREEN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:10 AM ET

Sam Mitchell sounded a tad jealous when discussing the Boston Celtics' trade-deadline deal for Antoine Walker yesterday.

"I don't necessarily know if it's a spark, it's just the fact he has credibility with players in the locker-room," said the Raptors coach, whose team is in Boston to face the Atlantic Division-leading Celtics tonight for the first time since the Feb. 24 NBA trade deadline.

"If you have that in your locker-room, that's half the battle right there. (Then) you have someone in your locker-room who can get guys to step outside themselves and put the team first. You need players in your locker-room to do that. The coach does it but you also need a coach in the locker-room. That definitely helps."

So do the Raptors have a coach in the locker-room?

"I didn't hear your question," Mitchell said, trying not to smile. "What's your question?"

We think Mitchell is saying it is no coincidence that the Celtics have taken control in the weak Atlantic since acquiring Walker from the Atlanta Hawks. The Celtics (35-29) are 8-1 with the star forward and entered play last night 4 1/2 games ahead of the second-place Philadelphia 76ers and 7 1/2 games ahead of the fourth-place Raptors (27-36). Boston has gained three games on the Raptors since the deadline.

When asked if anybody can catch the Celtics in the Atlantic, Mitchell said, "Not unless you can go into Boston and get some wins. They're playing well, they've got a good team, they're deep, they're talented and they've got veteran players. Antoine Walker does make a difference. He can say things to Paul Pierce and Ricky Davis because they respect him."

The Celtics traded Gary Payton to the Hawks in the Walker deal only to re-acquire him later in a suspect side move after the Hawks waived the guard.

"People find loopholes in the collective bargaining agreement," Raptors point guard Rafer Alston said when asked if that move was fair. "They find ways to manoeuvre and get the pieces to the puzzle they need."

Alston said Celtics basketball boss Danny Ainge deserves credit for making a big move to try to win a wide-open division. The Raptors actually talked about winning the Atlantic as recently as last month.

"It was a great business move," Alston said. "You've got to tip your hat to Ainge for making that move and pulling the trigger on that. It's served them well."


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