BOSTON -- Shaquille O’Neal might be counting down his last days as a professional basketball player, but he’s by no means merely playing out the string. In fact the 18-year veteran seems hell-bent on making the most of the two-year contract he signed with the Boston Celtics in the offseason.
Signed to serve as a backup to center Jermaine O’Neal until injured starter Kendrick Perkins returns later this season, Shaq was pressed into starting duty when Jermaine was felled by a knee injury. And to the surprise of some, he’s flourished in the role.
Asked before Friday night’s 110-101 win over the Raptors whether he was surprised at O’Neal’s play since being shuffled into the starting lineup, coach Doc Rivers said no.
“No, I mean he’s doing what I thought he would do,” Rivers said. “The one thing we did anticipate, even more so, is that we’ve already heard he clogs up the paint and we thought offensively, he would do the exact opposite. And that’s what he’s done.
“Every time guys drive, when you do help off of him, it’s a guaranteed dunk for him. And when you don’t help off of him, it gives guys room.”
Rivers said that was especially evident in the second half of the Celtics' win Wednesday over the Nets -- a game in which O’Neal collected 25 points and 11 rebounds -- and it was on display again Friday versus Toronto. O’Neal scored 16 points -- he was a perfect 5-of-5 from the field and an excellent (for him) 6-of-8 from the free throw line -- and corralled 9 rebounds.
Kevin Garnett, who delivered his seventh double-double of the season with 26 points and 11 rebounds, called playing with Shaq “a breath of fresh air."
“It’s almost like walking to the park and you see the bullies but you have your big brother right there,” Garnett said.
Garnett also said O’Neal exceeded his expectations from the get-go with how the veteran big man fit into the already established Celtics team.
“There’s no ego with Shaq, it’s all about the team,” Garnett said. “You hear different things about certain guys in our league and Shaq was no different from that, but I’ve yet to see those things. I think it’s about how we approach Shaq, and how we deal with Diesel here.
“We give him a lot of respect, and he’s earned that right. But at the same time, he gives the respect back. He has a certain level that he’s going to demand from us and at the same time, we demand from him. He’s fitting in perfectly.”
After the game, O’Neal downplayed the burden he’s carried so far this season.
“It’s not that I’m carrying the load. I’m playing with a lot of great guys and it ain’t all on me,” O’Neal said. “When Paul goes to the hole, you’ve got to pay attention. I’m just getting easy baskets.
“At 38, that’s kind of how I want it. I ain’t trying to back down and take 30 or 40 shots. But when guys give it to me … I’ve just got to finish all the time.”
Learning from mistakes
Against the Raptors, the Celtics’ game plan was to go inside early and often. In the loss on Sunday, Rivers said he thought they started playing inside and then gradually moved outside. It was clear Friday that the Celtics were determined not to repeat that mistake.
“We were really focused on getting the ball inside to Kevin, to Shaq tonight,” Paul Pierce said. “I think we did a good job. I think [Rajon] Rondo, Kevin really set the tone with penetration and inside play.”
Garnett scored the game’s first two baskets, but it was Rondo-to-Shaq that really brought the fans to their feet early.
On one play, Rondo penetrated into the lane, drawing a Raptors defender. The shifty point guard then faked a behind-the-back pass, wrapping the ball around the defender to Shaq for an easy layup that put the Celtics up early 16-5. Later in the quarter, the two teamed up again. Rondo threw up one of his patented lobs and O’Neal went up and got it, throwing it down with authority and bringing a roar from the crowd.
The Celtics finished well as a group Friday. They shot 53.9 percent from the field overall, 30.8 percent from 3-point range (4-for-13) and 80 percent from the line. The Raptors, meanwhile, managed just 45.1 percent from the field overall and 69 percent from the line, but shot 46.7 percent from 3 (7-for-15).
Points in the paint proved to be the difference: The Celtics had 64, while the Raptors had just 44.
Extra motivation for KG
Garnett admitted after the game that he had a little extra motivation to perform well against the Raptors.
“Doc has different ways of motivating me, and he pulled me to the side and he wasn’t really happy with the [Andrea] Bargnani situation up there,” Garnett said of the Toronto power forward and former No. 1 draft pick, who scored 29 points in the Raptors’ win over the Celtics on Sunday. “And I wasn’t really pleased with that, either. Tonight was more of a concentrated effort to keep him under control.”
On Friday, Bargnani shot just 4-for-13 and scored 11 points.
“I take defense very seriously, and just a one-on-one situation -- I don’t want Bargnani to take this the wrong way but if he do, [expletive] it, I’m being honest -- I get up for that,” Garnett said. “Every night, I have a matchup; I take that very seriously. I don’t overlook a guy. Bargnani is a very, very, very good player in our league; he’s gonna be one of the premier players to come. But I was motivated in more than one way tonight.”
Rivers said he wasn’t surprised that Garnett played the way he did Friday.
“I thought Kevin’s energy tonight was off the charts,” he said. “And you knew it would be, if you know Kevin. Because the last time we played them, the guy in his position had a pretty good game, and that’s just Kevin Garnett.”
“We needed this win,” Garnett said. “And I think we looked at the loss up there as one that we gave away, and that stuck with us all the way to tonight.”
Glen Davis didn’t draw a charge against the Raptors, so his total remains at 21 for the season, but the man Davis often replaces in the lineup did. O’Neal stood his ground on a Bargnani drive in the second quarter and the two big men -- Bargnani is 7-foot, O’Neal 7-1 -- crashed to the floor in a heap.
Asked about the charge after the game, Rivers deadpanned: “I was scared for both guys. I’m glad he took it, but that’s a long fall.”