When the Celtics signed Shaquille O'Neal, the reaction in New England was a mixed one. There were some who were strictly anti-Shaq, and there were plenty of people who were at least somewhat skeptical of the signing.
There's his age — he's 38. There's his size and perceived corresponding lack of athleticism. There's the much-maligned problems at the free throw line.
But then Shaq showed up to camp. He was in the best shape he's been in quite some time. He brought his jovial personality and quickly gelled with not only future Hall of Famers like Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, but also with fellow off-court prankster Nate Robinson.
In short, he's been a fantastic signing.
He's missed a handful of games, something that's to be expected with his age and with the fact that the Celtics have one goal above all — win their 18th championship. With O'Neal in the lineup and playing significant minutes, they'll continue to have just as good as chance as any.
As of late, O'Neal has seen a resurgence on the court. Just take the big fella's last seven games. In those contests, O'Neal has averaged 16 points and seven rebounds per contest. Even more impressively, he's shooting 75 percent from the field. Seventy-five percent. The Celtics have gone 5-2 in that stretch and Shaq's 25-point, 11-board performance against the Nets on Wednesday has teammates recalling the big man's dominant era in the NBA.
"I told him he looked the ’99 Shaq, the 2000 Shaq, the 2001 to 2002 to 2003 to 2004 to 2005 to 2006 Shaq," Garnett said after the Celtics' 89-83 win."He looked fresh tonight. He looked really good. I thought he did a great job of getting us in the bonus early. He definitely was the target tonight, and we loved it."
On a team of established superstars (The Big Three) and an emerging superstar (point guard Rajon Rondo), Shaq has fit seamlessly into Boston's title plans and his contributions are coming in more places than the stat book.
His wide body — the same wide body that some questioned whether or not would slow down the offense — has been a benefit on defense in clogging the paint and making team defense easier. On the offensive side, the large body isn't clogging the lane, but it is obstructing lanes for opposing defenders, especially for those guarding someone like Allen. O'Neal's screens continue to open up Allen and Pierce and others.
"The great thing about setting screens for Shaq alone is every team in the NBA that has played against Shaq: You’re taught never to get off his side," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said prior to the start of the season. "Everybody tries to trap Ray off the screen. If you come off Shaq’s body, you’re releasing Shaq to the rim."
Well, both of those are coming true. Teams are releasing on Shaq, leaving him open for alley-oops from Rondo and are also part of the reason for Shaq's aforementioned hot shooting as of late. Allen, on the other hand? Well, it's probably no coincidence that Ray Allen's three-point percentage this season is 45.2 percent thus far. He shot just over 36 percent from behind-the-arc last season.
Perhaps Shaq's biggest contribution has been filling in for injured center Kendrick Perkins as he continues to rehab a torn knee ligament. Rivers and his coaching staff will have decisions to make in regards to playing time upon Perkins return, but if Shaq continues to excel like he is, it will be a win-win situation for the Celtics. Two big bodies like Perkins and O'Neal will likely do wonders in trying to cure some of the rebounding problems that plagued the Celtics late last season.
Regardless, as long as O'Neal can stay healthy (no small feat for a 38-year-old who stands at 7-foot-1 and well over 300 pounds), the signing itself will continue to be a win-win for both sides. If the Celtics find themselves staring down Kobe Bryant and the Lakers for the NBA title again this spring, having O'Neal may be the difference.
Lack of rebounding and the absence of Perkins in Game 7 did the C's in during last year's Finals. Shaq helps solve both of those problems. That's not even the best part about having him, either. Would you bet against a Shaquille O'Neal driven to catch Kobe in NBA championship rings? Didn't think so.