Celtics Defense Will Change with Newcomer Shaquille O’Neal at Center


September 25, 2010

What we know for sure is that Shaquille O'Neal is a bona fide celebrity — one unseen on the Boston sports scene in a long time, save for maybe Tom Brady. He brings the mystique, the aura, the reputation and the four championship rings with him to Beantown for his debut with the Celtics this fall.

What we don't know, exactly, is how much Shaq has left in the tank, and what he can bring to the Celtics on the basketball court.

Shaq was brought in to help the C's on the glass. President of basketball operations Danny Ainge went to work this summer retooling a team that had finished dead last in the NBA with only 716 offensive rebounds — and had lost starting center Kendrick Perkins to injury in June. There was a lot of work to be done.

"We don't have Perk, so we really felt like there was a hole there for the whole first half of the season," Ainge said Thursday. "So really, with the limited resources we had to build the team, we felt like that was the spot we had to put most of our resources into. So being able to get Shaq and [Jermaine O'Neal] with what we had was very successful for us. Now the only concern you have with those guys is their health. We know they can both play. It's just a matter of keeping them healthy.

"Hopefully it cures our rebounding woes," added head coach Doc Rivers. "Listen, we're not going to have Perk for a while. So we went out and got the O'Neal brothers, and we'll find out. I think that's an area that we've addressed on paper, with size. But I think [Rajon] Rondo and Paul [Pierce], all those guys, everyone has to rebound better as well."

It'll be a team effort to improve on the glass, and it won't be easy to reverse a downward trend in the Celtics' rebounding numbers over the last three years. It's a big problem for an aging Celtics team that's becoming increasingly reliant on perimeter shooting — especially on the offensive end, their guys aren't positioned near the basket, and they're getting boxed out too easily. Normally dominant rebounders like Pierce and Kevin Garnett have turned mortal.

But rebounding is far from the only problem the Celtics will address with Shaq in the lineup this winter. Another issue will arise defensively — specifically with guarding against the pick and roll, since Shaq is one of the slowest defenders in the league. Rotation, which used to be the Celtics' biggest strength defensively, has now become a weakness.

"I was just with all the NBA head coaches in Chicago, we had a little thing together," Rivers said. "And every coach said, 'Hey, you're going to see a lot of pick and roll this year!' We will, and that's fine. We knew that when we did it. So we're going to try to be the team that solves it."

"Shaq has had trouble defending the pick and roll at times in his career," added Ainge, "but he's also been one of the top defensive rebounders in the game the last few years. He really knows how to rebound. So we feel like in our defensive schemes, we've improved our defense."

Shaq's arrival is going to change a lot of things about this Celtic team — the flow of their offense, the movement of their defense, their strength on the glass, their environment in the locker room. It's a whole different squad with the Diesel fueling things.

Win or lose, these Celtics are in for an exciting couple of years. And they'll never forget having a legend of the game in their locker room.

"He's a real fun guy," said Nate Robinson. "And he's the kind of guy you can play on a team with, and I can always tell my kids that I played with one of the all-time greats."

Shaq's been great for 18 years. Now it's time to see if he can still bring it. We'll start to answer that question next week.

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