Baker on road to Vin-dication

He scored, he rebounded and he played defense. Yes, that was Vin Baker doing those things.

Updated: October 9, 2003, 7:54 PM ET
By Joe Lago | ESPN.com

Editor's note: ESPN.com is once again visiting all 29 NBA teams during training camp and the preseason. The tour continues with a report on the Boston Celtics.

Vin Baker
Vin Baker backrimmed this dunk but still scored eight points in Boston's preseason opener.
UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- The comeback isn't quite the caliber of rallying from two games down to beat the Oakland A's and set up the Series of the Century, but it's a comeback nonetheless.

And the Celtics franchise is cheering Vin Baker every step of the way.

Baker's path back to serviceable NBA center will get lost in the hoopla over the Red Sox-Yankees showdown, but that's fine. By the time the baseball season is over, Boston fans will be pleasantly surprised to see a svelte, 6-foot-11 athlete wearing No. 42 that can glide up and down the floor.

Just up the road from his hometown of Old Saybrook, Baker began reviving his career in the Celtics' preseason opener at Mohegan Sun Arena on Wednesday. If seeing is truly believing, then those who saw Baker seemingly stand in quicksand all last season wouldn't believe the agility displayed by the 31-year-old against Detroit.

Who was that twisting his body around defenders to score a putback? That was Baker.

Who alertly stepped out of the key to contest a 17-foot jumper on the right wing by Elden Campbell. That was Baker, too.

And what about the hustle play to get back on defense and disrupt a breakaway layup? And the hanging, double-clutch shot under the hoop that drew a foul? Seriously, Vin Baker. No lie.

"I can't really pinpoint it, but it's been awhile since I felt that good on the floor," Baker said. "I felt quick. I felt my lift was there tonight.

"I think the first putback that I had, I kind of surprised myself. I was moving so fast ... It went in and that was a surprising thing for me. I think I've got a lot of mental adjustments to do with my new body, being in shape. But it felt good."

After 12 modestly productive minutes in which he scored six points, grabbed two rebounds, posted two assists and blocked one shot, Baker left the game with 4:27 remaining in the first half amid cheers. The fans weren't celebrating a home run by the Red Sox, who were playing the Yankees in New York at the same time. They were applauding the new and improved Baker.

"He worked really hard to come back," Paul Pierce said. "We're not putting any pressure on Vin to go out and have big nights for us each and every night. We just want him to go out there and stay positive and work hard, and he's showed signs of it in practice."

Baker hit rock bottom last February when the Celtics suspended him for the remainer of the season. He underwent rehabilitation for alcohol dependency and spent the summer rededicating himself to basketball.

Until Wednesday, Baker's self-improvement had been met with skepticism.

I think Vin is going to have a very, very strong year. I have much confidence that his turnaround is going to be a complete one.
Jim O'Brien

"I'm glad Vin took care of his personal problems off the court. I'm happy for him," Pierce added. "For him to come and give us something (this season) would be a huge plus for us. Hopefully, he'll continue to work. We're going to stay positive and stick with him until the end."

On a few possessions, Campbell saw the old Baker on the court -- the Baker who made four All-Star teams with Milwaukee and Seattle. The Celtics' big man finished with eight points on 3-for-3 shooting in 18 minutes.

"He looked pretty good. He was playing relaxed," Campbell said. "He didn't have too much on his mind -- that stuff really does make a difference. He's a good guy. I'm hoping he'll do well."

The Celtics' switch to a more up-tempo offense didn't figure to be a good fit for Baker, since his best seasons were achieved while anchoring the low block in halfcourt sets. But with this sleeker and spry Baker, maybe he won't get left behind after all.

"I think Vin is going to have a very, very strong year," Celtics head coach Jim O'Brien said. "I have much confidence that his turnaround is going to be a complete one."

"I worked so hard over the summertime. I've got to do whatever I can do to contribute to this team," Baker said. "I've worked too hard. This team has worked too hard.

"I can't control touches (of the ball), but I can control my effort. That's one of the things I've got to give this team is hustle, rebounding and effort every single night."

Fleet Center fans won't believe their eyes.

Joe Lago is the NBA editor at ESPN.com.