CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Gerald Wallace’s age and his surgically repaired left knee have placed some restrictions on what he is capable of. He can’t run the way he once did. He can’t soar the way he once did. Time and wear and gravity can be unforgiving.
But some nights, the 32-year-old Celtics forward is in the mood to test limits. Some nights, old Gerald feels more like the Gerald of old.
In Boston’s 116-104 win over the Hornets Monday, it was easy for Wallace to get nostalgic. He was back in Charlotte, back where he’d spent the finest years of his career. He was invigorated by the cheers he received when he entered the game, and perhaps there was no better time or place to turn back the clock.
With 5:46 left in the second quarter, Wallace filled the left lane as Avery Bradley moved upcourt on a fast break. Wallace raised a finger in the air — the universal request for an alley-oop in such a situation. Bradley could have used some discretion. He could have decided that throwing an alley-oop to Wallace might not end well. But he didn’t hesitate, and neither did Wallace.
The pass was good, Wallace’s leap was well-timed, and his dunk came right over Hornets forward Marvin Williams.
“It’s more of like a heat check, I’d say,” Wallace explained. “See where your knee is at, see how your knee feels, see what goes on.”
Here’s what went on in the immediate aftermath: The Celtics bench went bananas, and Wallace simply ran back and helped force a turnover. He has been around too long to be swept up in one feel-good moment.
“You’re not going to make every shot every night,” Wallace said. “You’re not going to be on point every night. But the one thing you can control that I was always taught is effort. You can go out and compete with just your effort, and good things happen.”
Wallace had 4 points, 5 rebounds, and 2 steals in 15 minutes against Charlotte. He is averaging just 8.6 minutes per game this season but has become a mentor to the younger players. He has also been a reasoned and sometimes stern voice in the locker room.
After a puzzling home loss to the Pistons March 22, Wallace addressed his teammates and said they had to become more serious about this stretch run if they truly wanted to reach the postseason. He told them they cannot lose to teams like Detroit.
It has not been easy for Wallace to have a reduced role, but he has accepted it. He said his balky knee has hindered him, so he has been patiently waiting for nights like Monday’s.
“If I’m not able to perform or do what I know I’m capable of doing and competing at a high level, then I’m not going to rush myself,” Wallace said. “I don’t want to go out there playing halfway.
“I only know how to play one way, and if I’m not able to play that way fully, I don’t want to go out there and jeopardize the team or the success that we’re having.”
In this age of advanced statistics and analysis, Celtics coach Brad Stevens said he mostly called upon Wallace against Charlotte on a hunch. He remembered how well Wallace had played in Time Warner Cable Arena last season — he had 17 points and 4 rebounds — and he had a feeling the circumstances were right for another strong outing.
“I just felt like I know what kind of boost he’s going to give us,” Stevens said. “We wanted to emphasize playing with a defensive mind-set and felt like this was a good night for him to really come out and get us going.
“He was great defensively in rotations, he was great on the bench and helping. He was just really engaged.”
With 9:49 left in the fourth quarter, Isaiah Thomas drove through the lane and fed Wallace, who was wide open under the basket. The scene was set for another slam, another flashback. Instead, Wallace made a layup and jogged back on defense.
“I’m taking it baby steps,” he said. “One dunk at a time.”