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At a conservative 325 pounds, Shaquille O’Neal outweighs the heaviest Net player by 60 pounds. That size differential was on full display Wednesday night at the TD Garden, where the Boston Celtics defeated the New Jersey Nets, 89-83. O’Neal scored 25 points (including 7-13 on free throws, three times sinking both) and grabbed 11 rebounds, and the Celtics dominated in the paint 44-28.
The Celtics led 18-17 after the first quarter, thanks in part to O’Neal’s eight points, but then seemed to mentally check out of the game. The passing, usually so crisp and often mesmerizing, became sloppy. Passes went too far over players heads, or were thrown at the wrong level through traffic, causing turnovers or at least deflections. And when Celtics caught the ball, they often dropped the pass or had to just stop it with one hand to collect it. This extra second continually gave the Nets defense a chance to reset and make shots harder. The Nets also shot 68.8 percent in the second quarter, and most of their shots came via the jumper, which the Nets were happy to take. The Nets led the game at halftime, 46-38, and built their lead to as much as 48-38 with 10 minutes left in the third quarter.
In the third, the Celtics finally began to close the gap. The shots started falling, with more help from O’Neal (six points in the third quarter), and the Celtics started closing the gap with strong defense. Marquis Daniels, who played 29 minutes, blocked a shot and stole two passes in the third. The quarter ended on a no-look, behind-the-back pass to Daniels from Paul Pierce, which Daniels dunked, cutting the lead to 63-61. Daniels finished the game with just four points and three rebounds, but he was characteristic of an energetic defense that clamped down in the third and allowed the Celtics to cut Jersey’s lead to just two points after three quarters.
The Celtics tied the game 63-63 on free throws less than two minutes into the fourth, then gave up another jump-shot to the Nets, this time by shooting guard Anthony Morrow (18 points). But O’Neal then made both free throws to tie the game 65-65. The Celtics went up for good on an O’Neal shot in the paint from Ray Allen, then started to pull away. Allen made two three-point shots to extend the lead, and Pierce put it out of reach with two consecutive 16-foot jump shots and two free throws. Allen finished the game with 15 points, seven assists and four rebounds in 40 minutes of play. Pierce finished with 18 points, four assists and five rebounds in 39 minutes of play.
Delonte West seemed to be finding his form in the second quarter. First he started a nice passing sequence where he brought the ball up the court, fed it to Pierce, who then found Kevin Garnett (eight points, five rebounds, three steals, one blocked shot) for the easy dunk, cutting the Nets lead to 33-28. Two possessions later, West took matters into his own hands, slashing past several Nets for a a left-handed layup. However, contact in the air pushed West off-balance, and he crashed hard to the floor, grimacing in pain. West suffered a broken wrist, and Doc Rivers said he will likely be out several weeks.
Wednesday was O’Neal’s second consecutive game with a double-double, and the Celtics were a different team with him on the floor. O’Neal gave the Celtics a distinct advantage in the paint, where the Nets had no one who could match-up against him. Nets center Brook Lopez (16 points, just five rebounds) seemed content to pull O’Neal out from under the basket. Lopez’s strength is his perimeter game, so O’Neal was constantly choosing between giving up a jump-shot or giving up a lay-up. O’Neal usually opted to give up the jumper, which Lopez and other Nets made, but doing so allowed him to always be in proper position to collect the rebound, which came more often than not (despite their success, New Jersey still only shot 46.3 percent). And offensively, no Net could body up with O’Neal, leading to easy layups and dunks in the paint. By the time the Nets found a way to contain O’Neal (he had only one field goal in the fourth), the rest of the Celtics found their shooting strokes, and the offense returned to the balanced, well-distributed style that wins games. But all of that was only possible because O’Neal carried the team for all 32 minutes he played, the most he’d played in a game since January.