The Chicago Bulls made their statement Thursday. Right now, the Bulls are the better team. If Thursday had been Game 1 of a seven-game series the Celtics would be in trouble.
After the game, Kevin Garnett talked about Boston having another gear for the playoffs. Their fans are counting on that. That those days off between the end of the regular season and the start of the playoffs — plus the end of back-to-backs — will mean the veteran team will have fresher legs. That their savvy and understanding of what it takes in the playoffs will lift them to another level that a team like Chicago does not yet grasp.
They also have a trump card — Shaquille O’Neal.
That card is a legitimate play, but we will not see it for at least a couple more games. CSN New England is reporting that Shaq will be out Sunday against Miami and Monday against Washington. Wednesday against New York is still a question mark. Shaq is expected back for the playoffs.
When healthy he changes the game for the Celtics — the team defense remains good but the offense takes a big step forward. John Schuhmann at NBA.com did the heavy lifting on the numbers.
O’Neal has played with the other four Celtics starters in just 18 games. But they were 15-3 in those games and 9-1 against playoff teams. With that lineup intact, they beat the Heat twice, and they beat the Knicks, Bulls, Magic and Lakers.
Of lineups that have logged at least 200 minutes together, the Celtics’ lineup of Rondo, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Garnett and O’Neal has been the second-most dominant…
First, let’s be clear, those Boston wins were in the first half of the season. They would face very different Heat, Bulls and Lakers teams now. (Knicks too, not sure it would matter there, though.) But Schuhmann’s point is valid still — Boston’s starting five with Shaq in the lineup outscored opponents by 19.1 points per 100 possessions. Swap in the also injured at times Glen Davis in that with the Celtics big four and they are up 17 points per 100 possessions. (The most dominant lineup, by the way, was the Mavericks lineup with Caron Butler.)
What Shaq brings is an inside scoring presence that Boston lacks right now, allowing teams to stick tighter with players on the perimeter.
And on the offensive end of the floor, where the Celtics have been struggling most over the last month, is where Shaq can help the Celtics most. The lineup of Rondo, Allen, Pierce, Garnett and O’Neal has shot a ridiculous 58 percent from the field (easily the highest among five-man units that have played 200 minutes together). And with O’Neal on the floor, Allen (38-for-69) and Pierce (30-for-59) have combined to shoot an incredible 53 percent from 3-point range.
There are legitimate questions about how much Shaq can give or if he can stay healthy. There are legitimate questions about if this year the dip is about father time catching up with Boston in a way it did not in previous years. Those questions can only be answered once the playoffs start.
But Boston does have another gear in them once Shaq returns to the lineup. And that gear may be one the other teams in the East cannot match.